What you need to know about the far-right party that’s made gains in Germany’s elections

Merkel has been dealt a big blow, but it's not all bad news.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a press conference the day after the German parliament election. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a press conference the day after the German parliament election. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

It was a hollow victory for Angela Merkel on Sunday.

The German Chancellor is set to continue her 12-year reign after her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party achieved 33 percent of the vote on Sunday’s election. But, for Merkel the results were a disappointment because for the first time in 65 years, a far-right party will have seats in the German parliament.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) picked up an impressive 13 percent of the vote, giving them 94 seats and making them the third biggest party in the Bundestag, behind the Social Democrats (SPD). AfD’s federal spokesman, Alexander Gauland, said it was time to “take back our country and our people” and fight an “invasion of foreigners”.

Sunday’s election is a massive setback for Merkel. Despite her electoral victory, the CDU recorded its worst result in 70 years. Their current coalition partner, the SPD, said on Monday that it would have to reconsider its longstanding alliance, which is necessary to form a government. And of course, the success of the AfD is troubling in itself, as the far-right party has a long history of rampant racism and xenophobia.  “[We] want to prevent the looming risk of social and religious turmoil and the creeping extinction of European cultures,” the party’s current manifesto reads, which also describes Muslims as a “danger to our state, our society, our values.” The AfD has risen to power on blatantly anti-immigrant and anti-EU platform, and party leaders have often used neo-Nazi language and brushed over the history of Nazism in Germany. Earlier this year, one politician criticized the existence of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and said that German history was forced to look “mean and ridiculous” in schools.

But it’s not all bad news — there are already signs that AfD is fracturing. Just hours after their dramatic electoral victory, the party’s chairwoman, Frauke Petry, said she would not sit with the AfD in the Bundestag and walked out of a scheduled press conference. “Today we must be open that there is internal dissent within the AfD,” Petry said. “We must not be silent about this. The community needs to know that we have controversial debates.”

Polling also indicates that AfD’s support wasn’t a product of its own platform, but a rejection of mainstream political parties instead. Exit polls on Sunday found that 60 percent of AfD voters voted “against all other parties, ”with just 34 percent voting because they strongly believed in AfD’s policies. Nationally, only 12 percent of Germans said they were satisfied with the political work of AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland.

Merkel, for her part, seems to have taken some of this onboard. “We have started to analyze the voters we lost, especially with regards to those who went on to vote for the AfD,” she said. “We want to get them back by good politics and addressing some of the issues.”

AfD will also soon discover that there is a massive difference between riding a populist wave to power and sustaining it. “Electoral breakthrough is different from electoral persistence,” wrote Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and author of Populism, A Very Short Introduction. “Most new parties in general, and populist radical parties in particular, find it hard to constitute a big, coherent faction in the national parliament. This is particularly the case for populist radical-right parties in Germany, as we have seen already in state parliaments with Die Republikaner (the Republicans) and the German People’s Union in the 1990s.”

That was also the case with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) after the Brexit referendum last year. In 2015, the party won an impressive 12.7 percent of the national vote. It’s leader throughout most of 2016, Nigel Farage, was instrumental in helping the UK back Brexit – the party’s signature issue. Yet in the 2017 General Election, it saw its party share drop from 12.7 to less than two percent, as the party failed to re-invent itself as one that could help design the Brexit it had so relentlessly campaigned for.

For now, AfD can bask in its victory, while Merkel starts the arduous task of building a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats. But their victory may not last long.