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Germany: Far-right AfD expands political influence

June 26, 2023

After the AfD's weekend success in regional elections, critics warn the political floodgates have been opened. The party, parts of which have been labeled extremist by authorities, has set its sights on larger goals.

Björn Höcke, Tino Chrupalla and other AfD supporters clapping and cheering Robert Sesselmann (who stands in the middle, looking thoughtful)
AfD leaders were euphoric after Robert Sesselmann (center) won Sunday's election in SonnebergImage: Jacob Schröter/IMAGO

Sunday's election result in a small district in east Germany's Thuringia region has triggered a political earthquake and a deluge of media and social media comments.

The Sonneberg election marked the first time a candidate from the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) was elected to head a government — albeit that of a small district of only 57,000 inhabitants. 

A district administrator does not have much clout, but jubilant AfD leaders are hoping the victory will herald far greater political success. According to the latest opinion polls, the AfD has realistic chances of becoming the strongest political force in three eastern German states in regional elections set for 2024.

Electorate unfazed by AfD scandals

All this is despite the various scandals that AfD politicians find themselves embroiled in: The mishandling of party donations, evidence of connections with militant right-wing extremists and racist hate speech. And, voters in Thuringia seem undeterred by the fact that several party figureheads have made positive references to fascism and the National Socialist regime under Adolf Hitler. Party co-leader Tino Chrupalla is confident that the recent election success is "just the beginning!"

Why the AfD is surging in polls

The AfD seems to be scoring points among voters on two political stances in particular: Opposing immigration and climate protection. For years, stirring up sentiment against refugees, immigrants and Muslims has been at the center of the AfD's political campaign.

"The AfD's basic narrative has always been that there is a threat to German culture. For a long time, this came from the outside, through migrants," political analyst Johannes Hillje told the taz newspaper. "Now the narrative is that this threat is also coming from within, through the transformation of society to climate neutrality — a central project of the center-left coalition in Berlin and the Green Party."

AfD seen as 'threat to democracy'

The center-left national government, a coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), has been fraught with infighting over its energy policies, nuclear power, and introducing a speed limit on the Autobahn. To get laws passed at times of international crisis, they often had support from opposition parties in parliament: the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its regional sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as the socialist Left Party.

Only the AfD, the outsiders on the far right of Germany's political spectrum, have not supported any of the government's policies, and have therefore been able to present themselves as the only "true opposition." Nor have they ever had to prove that they can actually take responsibility and run any government — partly because all their political rivals have so far ruled out any alliances with them.

Political analyst Hillje believes the federal government is in part to blame for the rise of the AfD. The drawn-out squabbling over when and how to phase out fossil fuel heating systems fomented material insecurity, the political analyst told public TV, and eventually turned into a "stimulus program for right-wing populists."

But many also blame the conservative CDU/CSU bloc for the AfD's success. Some analysts have said CDU chairman Friedrich Merz has been echoing far-right rhetoric by taking a populist line on refugees, LGBTQ rights, and climate protection. To many, this is a blatant bid to win back voters from the AfD, but they also warn that this will backfire, as voters generally prefer to vote for the original rather than the imitation.

Following Trump's playbook

Germany is currently experiencing a development that reminds observers of the United States: There, despite many lies and scandals, former President Donald Trump remains a defining political force.

Like Trump in the US, the AfD in Germany portrays itself as the sole alternative to the political establishment and as the voice of the people suppressed by the government in Berlin and the mainstream media.

German intelligence classifies AfD youth wing as 'extremist'

In Germany, various agencies warned against the AfD's links to anti-constitutional organizations and its increasingly influential extremist nationalist wing, which denies minorities their place in society. The AfD's political opponents, business organizations the Central Council of Jews, and Muslim associations see the AfD as a threat to democracy.

Following its election success in Thuringia, the AfD has also received open support from the neo-Nazi camp. Prominent far-right activist Michael Brück congratulated the party on his Telegram channel, before making a dark warning to the newly elected AfD district leader: "There can be no false leniency in the necessary cleanup of the administration."

This article was originally written in German.

It has been re-edited for clarity since it was first published.

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