The far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have been left floundering during the Corona crisis. Wrong-footed by the coalition government’s deft handling of the crisis, which has won widespread approval in Germany, the AfD has failed to articulate any coherent response and failed to exploit its usual scapegoats to capitalise on the situation. It has no alternative.
Since it was elected to parliament as third largest party in 2017, the AfD has made waves with provocative behaviour and a rejection of the post-war consensus. It has shrugged off controversies over a series of jaw-dropping statements from party leaders. It has been fighting the weakened SPD for third place in the polls (often winning), and established itself as second strongest party in the east. But in the last few weeks, its support has dropped sharply.
Stable government during the turbulent corona months – that’s what people are looking for, and they have found that in the coalition government. SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz reacted quickly to the crisis, unpacking his 1.2 trillion euro ‘bazooka’ to prop up the economy; Angela Merkel, even in quarantine as she was for two weeks, has re-emerged as an unparalleled crisis leader; Germany’s substantial testing capacity, as well as its large number of intensive care beds, has so far meant that death rates are lower than in many other countries. The coalition government, which had been floundering in the run-up to the crisis, has seen a remarkable reversal in its fortunes as a result.
The confused response from the party which rejects the political establishment has not been convincing. As a Tagesschau report noted, “The constant narrative of the AfD, that the government is acting incorrectly, apparently does not go down well in Corona times.”
The inability of its Bavarian leader on a TV panel interview to think of a single policy the AfD had to support the economy through the crisis was widely reported. When the party finally did come up with a five point plan, most of it had already been implemented by the coalition government. AfD politicians have flouted their contempt for the social distancing regulations – which have won high approval ratings – in the Bundestag and in state parliaments, even requiring the parliament in Saxony to convene a full session instead of the smaller session that was planned. In April, a journalist tweeted a photo of 70 AfD MPs meeting to discuss their corona policy in the Bundestag – as a bonus, she commented, those who took part by phone had no voting rights.
The corona crisis has come on the back of two controversies surrounding the nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution labelled the Flügel right-extreme and put it under observation; and a video of Flügel leader Björn Höcke making a joke about Auschwitz surfaced. The pressure from these two events led Höcke to announce that the Flügel would be dissolved.
Does this mean the end to the rapid rise of the AFD? Unfortunately not.
In the long run, once the face masks, testing and need for ventilation have gone, the landscape will be different. This crisis is fostering the conditions for a further rise in the AfD vote.
Even the most optimistic economic forecasts show that Germany will be left with an economy in recession. The government’s Council of Experts modelled three scenarios showing the economy shrinking between 2.8% and 5.4% (with varying recovery times). Munich’s Ifo Institute was more pessimistic: it predicted that the economy will shrink between 7.2 to 20.6 percentage points. Despite the measures to help the economy, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil has warned that not all jobs can be saved. And while most Germans currently feel secure in their financial situation, a large majority think that their financial situation could deteriorate.
The heterogeneous AfD vote is united more by a sense of insecurity in a changing world, as well as scepticism about immigration, than by any socio-demographic factors. Insecurity and change are exactly what the virus will leave in its wake.
A 2018 Hans-Böckler Foundation report, for example, described a fear of decline felt by AfD voters across all social classes, linked to a pervasive feeling of uncertainty caused by changes such as digitalisation and globalisation. Fear of decline was more prevalent among AfD voters than voters of other parties, and the actual experience of decline, such as unemployment, had less influence than the fear of it. Similarly, a Bertelsmann Foundation report found that nearly two-thirds of all AfD voters are modernisation sceptics (people who consider themselves to be the social, economic and/or cultural losers of modernisation), a fact that sets the AfD apart from all other parties along the political spectrum.
AfD voters are also united by right-wing opinions about immigration, foreigners and open borders. Even with the dissolution of the Flügel, the AfD party leadership and executive remain far-right – as the failure of the executive this week to discipline Höcke has shown. And, amidst increasing insecurity, the party will find fertile ground in a country which, as long term studies have warned, has right-extremist, populist and anti-democratic opinions deeply rooted in the political centre.
Both the Leipzig Authoritarian Study and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Centre Studies, which have tracked right-extremist attitudes in Germany over nearly two decades, have identified this trend. Although open support for right-extremism is still low, characteristics of right-extremism, such as support for social Darwinism and authoritarianism, hostility to foreigners and national chauvinism, win wider approval; and AfD voters are much more likely to hold these opinions.
Additionally, in some recent polls in the east, where right wing attitudes are more deeply rooted, support for the AfD has remained high in recent weeks.
The real threat is that instead of killing off the AfD, this crisis will blow apart all attempts to contain it.