The anti-EU, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party is struggling for cohesion after public opinion surveys suggested its support is eroding. But some experts believe the party's troubles are here to stay.
After attracting around 15 percent in polls in recent months, the latest opinion surveys put support for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party at only ten percent. If these polls are correct, the right-wing populists have lost around a third of their voters in recent weeks. What are the reasons for the party's seeming decline? One cause is acrimony at the top.
Last weekend, the AfD's regional leaders in Germany's 16 federal states took the highly unusual step of writing to members and allies promising party unity. The declaration came after weeks of controversy over whether the leader of the AfD in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, should be expelled for holding a speech in which he used language and ideas associated with National Socialism.
Political scientist, and right-wing extremism expert, Stefan Häusler, says that the party has damaged itself externally and internally.
"Externally, Höcke's speech noticeably harmed the party because it was a disguised plea for a racial-nationalist political outlook, and the drastic language of the 1920s and '30s scared off more voters than it attracted," Häusler told Deutsche Welle. "Internally, the party's grassroots see the actions against Höcke, initiated primarily by [party spokeswoman Frauke] Petry, as a stab in the back."
Struggles for the leadership of the AfD, which has only existed since 2013, are nothing new. The same applies to conflicts between the party's "moderate" (Petry) and "extremist" (Höcke) wings. Nonetheless, renowned political scientist, Hajo Funke, thinks that the AfD has maneuvered itself too far toward the political margins.
"They have little chance of ending the struggle for power before (September's) election," believes Funke. "They've moved very far to right, with Höcke as a dynamic center, especially in eastern Germany. Racial-nationalist is perhaps an understatement for his outlook."
Part of the party's dip in the polls is down to the lack of what Funke calls a "central charismatic leader" whom all members can rally around. That's a self-made problem. But other reasons for the AfD's decline may be beyond its control.
The Schulz factor
The populists' zenith in the polls came at the same time as a nadir in support for Germany's two largest political parties, the conservative CDU-CSU of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democrats (SPD). But Social Democratic chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, has succeeded in resuscitating the SPD in the polls and re-energizing political debate within the mainstream.
Funke and Häusler agree that this has blunted the populists' appeal.
"The other democratic parties have found their footing somewhat," explains Funke. "The conservative candidate is Angela Merkel, and the Social Democrats have Martin Schulz who has rediscovered the social-welfare soul of the party and wants a more socially just democracy. And for this reason, he's gained support from all sides, including the AfD."
Schulz, who assumed the party leadership in December from the unpopular centrist Sigmar Gabriel, is a candidate capable of stirring up the masses. In fact, he's been accused of employing populist rhetoric himself. But he's undeniably opened up an election that previously looked like a contest between Merkel and the AfD.
"With the candidacy of Martin Schulz, a dynamic has development in which the SPD can possibly win back likely non-voters and protest voters," says Häusler.
The SPD is up to around 30 percent in the polls - a good five percentage points better than it performed in the last national German election in 2013. The Social Democrats are currently running neck-and-neck with the conservatives, creating a buzz that has pushed the AfD out of the spotlight. But a further reason for the AfD's decline has to do with a phenomenon outside of Germany's own political party system.
Sobering effect of Trump, Brexit
Experts have often explained the rise of the AfD in Germany as part of a global turn toward populist nationalism. This was a trend that enabled Donald Trump to become the president of the United States and Brexit advocates to convince British voters to leave the EU. Now with not only the AfD, but right-wing populist parties in the Netherlands and France losing traction, could it be that voters are disenchanted with what they seen so far of Trump and the Brexit?
"It's more than just a delicate trend," Funke says. "It's less evident in France, where Marine Le Pen has only lost a little support, than in the Netherlands. Bt it's most evident in Germany. The Trump effect (that right-wing populists in Europe) hoped for is turning out to be negative."
Political scientists often talk about "buyer's remorse" to describe voters' feelings of regret after electing a leader. In this case, some continental Europeans may be feeling regret at what voters in the US and the UK have opted for.
"The European populists, including the AfD, frenetically celebrated Trump's election," Häusler says. "So from the perspective of the voters, they're partly responsible for the consequences. Thanks to Trump, or the possibility of an election victory by Marine Le Pen in France, many people are gradually coming to realize that the consequences could be quite bad."
So is further AfD's decline a foregone conclusion? Is it even correct to speak of the party as being in decline right now?
Another electoral surprise?
Political experts, pollsters and the media all badly underestimated the appeal of right-wing populism in the US presidential elections and the Brexit vote in the UK. With that in mind, the latest survey numbers can hardly be taken as fact. Still, both Häusler and Funke are convinced the AfD crisis is very real.
"The polls in the States were obviously quite bad, but the ones in Germany are better," Funke explains. "There was a 2 to 3 percent discrepancy with the polls in local elections last year, but that was at the height of the AfD's popularity. That apex is now past. I think that the AfD itself believes in the polls and thinks that it might end up with under ten percent."
Häusler concurs that the "solidarity letter" sent out by AfD leaders is a sign of worry, if not full-bore panic. He adds that a decline in popularity will destabilize the party, which by its very nature is inherently volatile.
"We need to remember that the AfD is a party of enraged citizens on the right, and if it's not able to discharge its conflicts outwardly, those conflicts turn inward," Häusler says. "That's a dynamic within the party that's hard to stop. So it's theoretically possible that the AfD will not only undermine its own chances of success, but in fact rip itself apart."