At the German Federal Election on 22 September, 2013, two parties failed to pass the five-percent threshold of the electoral system by a very narrow margin. While one of them (the Free Democratic Party FDP) had continuously sent representatives to the national parliament since its foundation in 1949 and failed for the first time, the other one was a newcomer to the German party system that had been founded just half a year before the election: the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). It scored 4.7 percent of the party votes, failing entry into the Federal Parliament only by 125,000 out of about 60 mio votes. Never before had a new party within such a short time come so close to passing the five-percent threshold at a Federal Election. At subsequent elections the AfD drew momentum from this near success. At the 2014 European Election and a number of State elections it gained enough votes to send representatives to the respective parliaments.
Having started its life as a single-issue party, the AfD increasingly seems to pave the wave for a new element of the German party system. It increasingly appears to mutate into a right-wing populist party, comparable to long-standing members of the party systems of neighbouring countries like Austria’s FPÖ, France’s Front National or the Dutch PVV. And by developing in this way it seems to meet a demand among voters. This is suggested by recent analyses of electoral behaviour, based on data from the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES; cf. http://www.gles.eu).
At the beginning of its short history, in early 2013, the AfD presented itself as a single-issue party, demanding a fundamental policy change in the European sovereign debt crisis. Against the background of repeated bail-outs for over-indebted countries of the Euro zone that were ultimately guaranteed by European and especially German taxpayers the AfD`s platform demanded an ‘orderly dissolution’ of the European monetary zone and a return to national currencies or smaller, more homogeneous monetary associations. The AfD thus emphasised an issue that – presumably for fear of its electoral fall-out – was widely neglected in the other parties’ campaign communications, and it assumed a much more restrictive position on this issue than any of the established parties. However, already during the Federal Election campaign its public rhetoric as an aside also alluded to right-wing populist motives, most notably a critical stance on immigration. After the 2013 Federal Election it moved further in that direction, downplaying the Euro crisis and focusing its rhetoric more strongly on xenophobic topoi and other motives from the repertoire of right-wing populism.
Investigating the roots of the AfD’s electoral support it becomes clear that the party profited from this ambiguity at the polls. Its electorate matched the two-faced character displayed by the AfD’s public communication. It consisted of two groups – a smaller group of voters who already at an early stage of the campaign were determined to choose the AfD, and a much larger group of late supporters that made up their minds in favour of this party only during the final days of the campaign or even on Election Day itself. These two groups were attracted to the AfD for quite different reasons. Its early supporters appear as instrumental issue voters. They found the AfD appealing because of its self-presentation as a single-issue party predominantly concerned about the Euro crisis and its domestic economic implications, and out of dislike for the governments’ policies on this issue.
However, the AfD’s good result at the Federal Election was mainly brought about by its late supporters. The AfD’s campaign rhetoric seems to have made these voters aware of the immigration-sceptic stances that the party assumed alongside its economically couched, ‘soft’ Euroscepticism. This let the AfD appear attractive for voters averse to inclusivist immigration policies. It is well known that xenophobic attitudes are an important driving force of support for right-wing populist parties in Europe. As it seems, the AfD was able to tap into a voter reservoir that just like in comparable countries exists in Germany as well, but could thus far not express its sentiments at the polls because the legacy of German history prevented a party of that type taking root in the party system.
After the Federal Election, the AfD more clearly began to shift its emphasis. At the European Election in May 2014, both concerns about the Euro crisis and xenophobic motives were similarly important sources of votes. At a series of State Elections held in East Germany in the same year, the AfD eventually campaigned mainly on xenophobic topoi like ‘Islamization’ and trans-border crime. As a consequence, the driving forces of AfD support in the electorate gradually shifted as well. From instrumental issue-oriented voting based on concerns about the Euro crisis, the main basis of AfD support shifted to xenophobic attitudes and thus over time came to resemble even more clearly the profile of electoral support for right-wing populist parties in neighbouring countries. Over three stages – from the Federal Election in Fall 2013 over the European Election in Spring 2014 to the State Elections about a year after the Federal Election – and with regard to both the party organisation and the party’s electorate basis the AfD covered a considerable distance on the road from single-issue to right-wing populist party.
It thus appears quite logical that the AfD eventually also got rid of its founding leader. At an extraordinary party conference in July 2015 its chairperson Bernd Lucke, a Professor of Economics and vocal critic of the European common currency, was voted down by a clear majority of the present party members, and replaced by a staunch advocate of a national-conservative course. Lucke and his supporters immediately left the party they had founded just two years before. According to polls, the party’s bitter infighting cost it some of its support among voters. However, the recent European refugee crisis seems to be grist on its mill – especially in its new, single-faced appearance. Redefining the slogan the East German revolutionaries’ coined in 1989 to insist on citizens’ sovereignty against the authoritarian Socialist state – “We are the people” – in ethnocentric terms, the AfD now tries to establish itself as a spearhead of public protest against the open borders policy of the German government. Demanding massive restrictions on asylum laws the AfD may well capitalize on many Germans’ aversion to growing numbers of immigrants at the next State Elections which are due in early 2016.
Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck is a Professor at the University of Mannheim and a co-principal investigator of the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES). He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University