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Far-right AfD seeks a boost in times of crisis

September 27, 2022

As far-right parties score election victories across the EU, the nationalist Alternative for Germany party is looking to translate economic anxiety into similar gains. The polls suggest that the strategy is working.

Far-right protestors in Germany
Supporters take part in an "Our Country First!" demonstration in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the AfD is the most popular partyImage: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance

Earlier this month, during a Bundestag debate on the potentially devastating situation for businesses and families amid soaring inflation and an energy crunch, AfD lawmaker Harald Weyel was caught on a hot mic saying he hoped that the situation would continue to deteriorate.

This harks back to 2015, when the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) utilized fears of a massive refugee influx to stage protests, especially in the east of the country. It went on to become the most successful far-right party in the country since World War II.

Since then, however, the AfD has struggled to find a rallying cry that connected with as many voters. They took to the streets in protest against COVID-19 restrictions but failed to stop a decline in support, especially in the West of the country.

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a euroskeptic party. And still, their position is that Germany should leave the EU, even as other nationalist parties, like the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy, have quietly abandoned such stances.

"Now, they are focusing on the government's sanctions against Russia," Wolfgang Schroeder, a political science professor at the University of Kassel, told DW. "They are saying that corrupt lawmakers are ignoring the needs of the people. They're arguing that elites in Moscow aren't the victims of these sanctions policies, but the German people are."

The message that the AfD is trying to send to the governing coalition of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) is clear: "You are not in charge of Russia — you're in charge of this country."

Inflation is hitting Germany's poor

ˈThe worse things are for Germany, the better things are for the AfDˈ

Indeed, AfD co-chair Tino Chrupalla has repeatedly accused Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government of fighting an "economic war" against Germans as inflation has risen to over 8%. The sanctions "are not in Germany's interest," Chrupalla has insisted, predicting that "throughout the fall, support for the government's policies will continue to sink."

Chrupalla's projections are echoed in opinion polls. According to figures published by research firm INSA, national support for Scholz's party has fallen from 25.7% in last year's federal election to 18% on Monday, the FDP has been reduced by half to 7% and even the Green Party is now experiencing a backlash against their plans to mitigate the gas shortage.

The AfD, in the same time frame, has risen in the national polls from 10% to 15%, one of its highest levels ever.

As households across Germany are shocked to receive their heating bills, the right-wing populists see golden opportunities ahead. The situation calls to mind another hot mic moment. In 2020, former spokesman Christian Lüth was caught by a documentary team saying "the worse things are for Germany, the better things are for the AfD."

AfD co-chair Tino Chrupalla wears a German-flag lapel pin
Chrupalla has accused the government of being responsible for soaring energy costsImage: Uli Decke/picture alliance/dpa

Scholz's communication problem

Schroeder said the biggest mistake Scholz's coalition had made was its lack of coherent communication.

"They have not offered clear answers about what people are actually gaining from domestic relief packages," Schroeder said, nor exactly how sanctions affect Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war machine. "The government has left communication gaps for right-wing populists like the AfD to jump into."

Schroeder feels that the SPD, Green Party and FDP should put some of the principles aside that were enshrined in the 2021 coalition agreement.

Last year's plans have "become outdated since February 24, 2022," the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the political analyst said. "The invasion has changed everything: It is now what is steering our policy" — and the parties need to recognize that priorities have shifted significantly.

Police stand blocking people taking part in a right-wing protest against increasing energy prices and rising living expenses in Leipzig, Germany, September 5, 2022.
Thousands have taken to streets over the past few weeks, protesting against price hikesImage: Christian Mang/REUTERS

Deep divisions likely to stymie success

Schroeder does not expect the AfD's popularity to soar. He does not see the current situation panning out like the xenophobic sentiment in 2015, "when opposing a refugee influx was something that spoke to people across the entire country."

"The AfD is deeply divided between those who are pro-Russia and those who aren't," Schroeder said, "and this is creating a rift between their supporters in the west of Germany and the east, where they are more friendly to Moscow."

The party has indeed been hemorrhaging membership since 2020.

For now, however, AfD leaders have seized the opportunity offered by Germany's edging closer to a recession to foment discontent by encouraging protests throughout the fall.

Under the slogan "a hot autumn against cold feet," the AfD has announced plans to hold weekly anti-government marches in the coming months, alluding to mass protests that helped bring down the communist regime in East Germany at the end of the Cold War. Across eastern Germany, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest government policy.

The AfD leader announced a concerted protest movement against the government's energy and Russia policies. From October, the AfD wants to take to the streets with the rallying cry "Our country first!" Chrupalla declined to confirm that this was modeled on Donald Trump's "America first" campaign.

"Demonstrations are already taking place in many places. In this respect, Monday is a good time to stretch your legs after the weekend," he said.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing. 

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.
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