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Germany's far-right AfD polling high, despite legal scrutiny

April 13, 2024

Experts have said Germany's far-right AfD party is becoming more tolerant of its radical members, even if they are accused of committing criminal offenses. This hasn't dented its support in certain parts of the country.

The AfD logo, with a man sitting in silhouette in front of it
The AfD enjoys widespread support, despite its members becoming more radical Image: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance

The German nonprofit investigative newsroom Correctiv has looked into the cases of 48 members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, many of whom are accused of brutal physical attacks, verbal assault and incitement to hatred.

At least 28 have been investigated by the German judiciary and have either been sentenced in a court of first instance or have been issued penalty orders, which they can still appeal. But despite the legal cases against them, many are still lawmakers in the German Bundestag, state parliaments or local councils.

In legal terms, none of them have to fear any consequences. In Germany, the right to stand for election or to be elected to public office only expires in the case of serious felonies such as murder, manslaughter or rape.

A close-up shot of Björn Höcke
AfD member Björn Höcke is thought to be setting the tone for the partyImage: imago images

'Defamation and vilification campaigns' against AfD

Correctiv also looked into the judicial records of politicians other than AfD party members, including lawmakers from the Left, the Greens, and the conservative, social democratic and liberal parties. So far, however, it has been unable to identify similar behavior on the part of politicians belonging to other German political parties.

Martin Reichardt, a lawmaker and member of the AfD's federal board, said Correctiv's reporting was a "portal of lies" that had launched "defamation and vilification campaigns against the AfD." Police in the German city of Erfurt looked into Reichardt in 2023 after he described President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as "one of the worst dividers and agitators in German history." The investigation was later dropped.

Numerous politicians from other political parties have expressed their concern about the danger posed by the AfD. Thorsten Frei, the chair of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) faction in the Bundestag, said he personally considered those lawmakers who have been accused of committing offenses "unsuitable to hold public office." He warned that the institutions of parliamentary democracy could be harmed.

Links to Russian disinformation network?

The AfD has come under increasing pressure since Correctiv revealed in January that leading members had taken part in a controversial conference late last year, during which participants openly discussed plans to deport people from Germany. The plans included the deportation of people with German passports.

Young men holding a Young Alternative for Germany flag
The youth faction of the AfD, the Young Alternative for Germany, is considered to be very radical Image: Alex Talash/dpa/picture alliance

The report triggered a wave of demonstrations against the far right across Germany, with millions going out onto the streets in hundreds of towns and cities.

In early April, the Czech government claimed it suspected an online Russian disinformation network of having links to the AfD. It said Moscow had used the far-right website Voice of Europe to damage Ukraine and influence politics in the EU. It was claimed that AfD politicians had taken payments for their collaboration.

The AfD has rejected these accusations and continued its counterattack on media outlets, state institutions and other political parties.

Party becoming increasingly radicalized

At recent party conferences, more radical members have received increased backing. Last year, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence service, classified the Young Alternative for Germany, the AfD's youth wing, as "right-wing extremist." Long considered controversial among its own ranks, the group is now enjoying increased support.

German political parties see surge in new members

Experts believe radical forces within the party are continuing to find solidarity in their own ranks and are rarely sanctioned despite political scandals, because the party as a whole is progressively radicalizing. More moderate forces have come under internal pressure, and some less radical members have left the party. Members once considered very extreme, including Björn Höcke, the party's leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, are now setting the tone. 

The former history teacher is due to stand trial for a second time this month after being charged with uttering a Nazi slogan once used by the Sturmabteilung (SA), once the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. He has denied the accusations.

According to recent polls, the AfD currently enjoys more than 30% support in Thuringia as well as in other states in eastern Germany.

This article was originally written in German.