The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered an ideal atmosphere for European far-right leaders to expand their influence: Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is the most recent addition to a growing list of autocratic leaders across the globe. Elections have been suspended and there seems to be no indication that the emergency powers granted to him will be temporary. This suggests a changing political landscape – one born out of fear, panic and vulnerability. The growing influence of far-right parties should not be viewed as a surprise. In times of crisis, citizens are nervous, tense and naïve – emotions which politicians are willing and able to exploit, thus strengthening their grip on power.
Oddly enough, the opposite must be said for Germany’s far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland, which has failed to capitalise on any government-directed stigmatisation. It is believed that the party is heading for a setback in polls, at best, and political collapse, at worst.
The Alternative für Deutschland – commonly referred to as the AfD – established itself as the centre of right-wing populism in Germany in 2013, when the party was founded following the Euro Crisis. The AfD’s far-right stance became even more pronounced following events in 2015, when Angela Merkel, German Chancellor since 2005, welcomed one million refugees through German borders. Merkel’s optimistic ‘wir schaffen das’ mentality (which roughly translates to ‘we can do it’) failed to conceal the tensions that were bubbling away in Germany’s political melting pot. Gaining political capital on Merkel’s controversial immigration policy, the AfD gained seats in all state parliaments and established its power base in East Germany. The party’s popularity consequently soared following 2015, receiving 24.3% of votes, for example, in an election held in Saxony-Anhalt in 2016. Since then, the AfD has firmly established itself as the largest opposition party in Germany’s lower house of parliament, aligning itself with Christian values and often being accused of elevating Neo-Nazi ideas into mainstream politics.
Whilst the coronavirus outbreak has become a godsend for right-wing parties across Europe to expand their support bases, the AfD seems to have wobbled and stumbled in the wake of this opportunity. Right-wing extremists have hijacked protests against lockdown measures, but the party has failed to capitalise on any sense of condemnation directed towards the government.
It is now common knowledge that Germany has been disproportionately successful in its fight against coronavirus, especially when compared to France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Merkel’s decisive and clear leadership has proven critical in ensuring that Germans follow social distancing measures. Despite having a population of approximately 83 million, Germany has only seen 8,792 deaths. Compare this, for instance, to the United Kingdom, which has seen a devastating 40,597 deaths, despite having a relatively smaller population of 66.5 million. Most importantly, Germany did not abandon its health care system, which has been built and strengthened through consecutive Merkel-governments. Medical care has been easily accessible to everyone and, unlike in the United Kingdom, the system has not been forced to turn to charitable donations. Indeed, the current governing coalition has been cited as the most popular government since public broadcaster ARD began commissioning this survey series in 1997. So, as painful as it may be for the AfD, the simple truth is that Germans are relatively happy with the current situation. April polls have suggested that 72% of Germans are satisfied with Merkel’s handling of the crisis. Only three out of ten Germans are critical of the government, whilst 93% believe that the strict social distancing rules are appropriate.
“Germany has muted the AfD and put its attention-grabbing cries on hold.”
Meanwhile, the AfD is failing to achieve any significant attention, the very thing it so desperately needs to survive. This is partly due to its inability to offer any new direction that differs significantly from Merkel’s approach. The AfD’s ten-point policy on combating the virus, released in April, seemed no different from suggestions offered by other parties, such as increased testing capacity and additional protective equipment for health workers. Recent figures suggest that the party’s social media posts have been receiving barely half the engagement they would typically expect. Could things get any worse for the party? Apparently so – posts about the crisis itself were among the least likely to see likes, shares or comments from supporters. Germany has muted the AfD and put its attention-grabbing cries on hold.
But the party has not only faced external challenges; internal divisions have also defined the AfD’s struggle during the pandemic. The ousting of Brandenburg party leader, Andreas Kalbitz, in May, hit particularly hard. The choice to remove Kalbitz was never going to be a decision that went unnoticed. Brandenburg is, after all, one of the party’s largest bases, with Kalbitz polling at 20% earlier this year. Internal divisions became clear through prominent members who either wanted to keep Kalbitz on (Alice Weidel), or wanted him gone (Jörg Meuthen). The removal of Kalbitz has subsequently revealed greater scars that are threatening to wound the party’s position permanently. Kalbitz’s alleged past connections to a Neo-Nazi Youth movement contradict the party’s recent attempt to attract ‘moderate’ and middle-class voters. Such a profound change in political direction, agreed by members of the party in 2019, was sure to anger the extremist fraction ‘Der Flügel’ (The Wing), which is believed to represent between 20% and 40% of its members. The faction has not only faced opposition from its ‘moderate’ party members but also from the German Domestic Intelligence Agency. The Agency recently placed the fraction under surveillance for violating “characteristic features of the free democratic basic order, human dignity, democracy and the rule of law.” The ease at which the AfD’s executive committee seemed willing to dissolve the extremist faction speaks volumes about the internal divisions which plague the party and threaten its progress in the coming months. Ultimately, it seems impossible for a party caught between middle-class moderation and right-wing ideologies to achieve any sense of unity and power.
It is possible that Germany’s inevitable recession will provide more opportunities for the AfD to gain back control. Uncertainty will give way to concern and fear over economic destruction, unemployment and the loss of livelihoods. With a 2.2% decrease in the economy in the year’s first quarter, there is a quiet yet palpable fear that the AfD will exploit poverty, anger and dissatisfaction to achieve a profound political comeback.