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Frauke Petry Jörg Meuthen Bundespressekonferenz BPK Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W.Kumm

Germany's AfD in crisis after Saarland slump

March 27, 2017

Germany's populist, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) had to make do with a relatively low election result in the state of Saarland. But leader Frauke Petry cried for a very different reason on Sunday.


Frauke Petry had more than one reason to cry on Sunday. The leader of Germany's most successful nationalist party since the Third Reich was pictured in tears at a party conference in Weinböhla, Saxony, because (according to the "Bild" newspaper) of a verbal attack on her delivered by Roland Ulbrich, a far-right candidate who ran against her to be Alternative for Germany's (AfD) election candidate.

A few hours later, it emerged that the AfD had scored its lowest election result in over a year in the Saarland state election. After an impressive run of five results in 2016 that all cracked double figures (including a peak of 24.3 percent in Saxony-Anhalt), the AfD had to make do with 6.2 percent in the western German state.

Infografik Wahlergebnisse AfD 2013-2016 ENG

Despite the tears, the 41-year-old Petry did get elected as the party's leading candidate in the state of Saxony (garnering 72 percent of the 280 votes), seeing off challenges from two representatives of the party's far right who used their speeches to accuse her of attempting to split the party.

Cutting people out

But Petry also had to contend with another defeat in Weinböhla, when a majority of the delegates voted down her motion to have Dresden judge Jens Maier removed from the party. Maier had attracted unwelcome headlines in January, when, during a now-notorious event hosted by the AfD's youth organization, he declared Germany's "guilt cult" about the Holocaust as over - the kind of "dog-whistle" statement that plays well to Germany's neo-Nazis.

Petry had defended the motion to have Maier thrown out of the party, saying the AfD needed to assess whether his speech had damaged the party. "Otherwise, our silence will be taken as an agreement to everything that is said within the AfD," she was quoted by the DPA news agency as saying.

Deutschland Landeswahlversammlung der AfD Thüringen | Björn Höcke, Fraktionsvorsitzender
Björn Höcke has proved a divisive figure in the AfDImage: picture-alliance/Arifoto Ug/Candy Welz

In recent months, the AfD has occasionally appeared to be at war with its own right wing, often initiating expulsion motions against prominent members, like Björn Höcke, who have included open racial overtones in their speeches. In late October last year, the federal party even flirted with disbanding its Saarland chapter after it emerged that the regional party had been maintaining contact with local neo-Nazis.

In the end, however, no major figure has ever been expelled from the party - leading some pundits to suggest that the exclusion motions themselves were cynical tactics intended to mollify more traditionally centrist conservative elements of the party - and potential voters.

Slump in form?

Either way, the slump in Saarland has attracted many people's attention, and has led many to suggest that the AfD is in crisis. "The issues of refugee crisis and migration have been pushed into the background a little - and of course the AfD profits from those a lot," said Hans Vorländer, political scientist at the Technical University in Dresden. "The other thing is that there is currently a mobilization process favoring the old parties, namely the SPD and CDU [Germany's two big governing centrist parties]. On top of that, in the western German states, the connection to the big parties is traditionally much stronger than in the eastern German states."

But other political scientists warned against reading too much into the Saarland election. "The AfD's Saarland result can be traced to the leader that the party had there, and the direction of the state party there - it's seen as a party of strange people with links to far-right extremists," said Gero Neugebauer, professor of political sociology at Berlin's Free University. "I'd really warn against thinking that the bad results in Saarland say anything in particular."

Neugebauer thinks that the AfD can still attract voters on a range of other issues that aren't necessarily linked to the refugee crisis of 2015 - relations with Russia, the power of the European Union, or "Islamization" in Germany.

As for the AfD itself, it is certainly trying to cover a number of different bases: "There are different sections," he told DW. "There are the remains of the old AfD - economically liberal with conservative values - they represent a bridge to the old conservative camp of the CDU. Then there are people like Höcke, who are bridges to the far-right camp. Putting it crudely, the basic position is: 'We have to keep ourselves open to the right, so that we get that audience, but in public we have to have an image that keeps us in contact with middle-class conservatives.'"

But there's no doubt that public rows over members like Höcke and Maier seem to have turned off many potential voters: people who might agree with the message of the AfD, but, as Neugebauer puts it, "don't like the impression they make in public." "And that depresses the AfD," he added, "Because among other things it loses them connections to people who could donate to them, to people in business circles."

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