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Germany: Far-right AfD stumbles ahead of EU election

May 29, 2024

The Alternative for Germany has seen turbulent weeks: Top candidates caused outrage by trivializing Nazi crimes and are being investigated for links to China and Russia.

left to right: AfD top candidate for EU election Maximilian Krah, AfD co-chair Tino Chrupalla, AfD co-chair Alice Weidel during a press conference
The AfD's EU election candidate Maximilian Krah (l) has landed his party in hot watersImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

The leaders of Germany's populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party are breathing a sigh of relief: Sunday's local elections in the eastern German state of Thuringia were no triumph, but no disaster either. With the EU election looming, it seems no international scandal or internal row can deter its core voters.

Thuringia is one of the party's major strongholds: Led by one of its most notorious figures, Björn Höcke, the Thuringian AfD has established itself as the biggest party in the state, regularly polling at over 30% — well above the national figures of around 15-20%.

But Sunday's local council elections, seen as a barometer both for the European elections in June and the Thuringia state election in September, did not bring the "blue wave" (the party's color) that some expected. Even though the party was able to increase its vote share on 2019 by 8 percentage points, reaching just under 26%, it was not able to claim a single mayor's office. Nine AfD candidates will have to make do with competing in run-off votes in the coming weeks.

Björn Höcke
Björn Höcke, the extreme-right leader of the AfD in Thuringia wants to head his state's government after elections this fallImage: Ronny Hartmann/dpa/picture alliance

A horror week for the AfD

Through it all, the AfD is often still polling nationally in second place after the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) — despite the almost daily reports of rows, racism, and allegations of treason and corruption.

Last week was calamitous for the party: It found itself ejected from its European parliamentary group after its leading candidate Maximilian Krah suggested to an Italian newspaper that not all members of Nazi Germany's SS were criminals. Krah, one of the party's new stars thanks to his populist diatribes on TikTok, also stepped down from the campaign and from the party leadership committee. He was already in trouble after one of his staff was arrested for allegedly spying for China.

This came just days after Thuringian leader Höcke was fined  €13,000 ($14,100) by a regional court for using a banned Nazi slogan.

Other European allies have distanced themselves: In an interview with Europe 1 TV last week, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN) criticized the AfD as "going from provocation to provocation" and giving "radical groups" too much space.

AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla then admitted that there had been "massive damage in the current election campaign, for which Krah had provided the pretext."

Later last week, Weidel told supporters at a campaign event that it was now crucial for the AfD to emerge stronger from this crisis. "Such days, such moments when things are not going so well, are always also an opportunity to learn lessons in order to continue to grow and professionalize ourselves further," she said.

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Unaffected by scandal

But as Thuringia showed, the damage from all this was limited. "A lot of people still voted for the AfD," said André Brodocz, political scientist at Erfurt University. "The AfD manages to re-frame these scandals. From their voters' perspective, it is not the behavior of the AfD politicians that is scandalous, but that of those who make it public."

Similarly, it didn't seem to matter to Thuringians that the domestic intelligence agency there has long since deemed the local AfD "proven extreme right" and a threat to Germany's "free democratic basic order." Oliver Lembcke, political scientist at the Ruhr University Bochum, thinks this is partly down to the underlying sympathies of many AfD voters: "They have some far-right wing voters who appreciate that the party itself has this right-wing extremist wing."

On top of that hardcore, the AfD also reaches a larger voting bloc who are dissatisfied with the main parties — or rather, they are beyond dissatisfied.

"Their disapproval is so deep and far-reaching that it doesn't just apply to the politicians and political parties, but also to the political system itself," Lembcke told DW.

This sense of grievance seems to make the AfD effectively immune to scandal. When a prominent AfD politician is convicted of a crime, or accused of abetting a foreign spy, to the party's supporters this is all just more evidence of the corruption in the system.

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Unaffected by chaos

Given all this, and with the European Parliament election looming, it seems clear that AfD can rely on a solid bloc of supporters who distrust the media wholesale. "If the news writes about the scandals, they won't read it, and if they do read it, they will most likely think it's just plain wrong," as Lembcke put it.

Given this mindset, the fact that the European Parliament's right-wing Identity and Democracy group decided to ditch the AfD is unlikely to affect its performance in the upcoming election.

Indeed, the AfD's polling in the EU election is more or less identical to the national election polling — 15-20%.

"It's a party of Euroskeptics anyway," said Lembcke. "I think for AfD voters it's just another chance to express their skepticism about the system of the EU. And for politicians like Krah, it's not about being effective in Europe, or about being part of the European democratic process."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight