Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 18 August 2023

Germany’s far-right party is more popular than ever — and more extreme

Maximilian Krah, the candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany for the European elections, poses for a portrait in Magdeburg, Germany, in July. (Carsten Koall/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)
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BERLIN — Maximilian Krah, the

newly elected top candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany for the European elections, doesn’t believe in watering down political messages to win centrist votes.

Hailing from what analysts describe as the party’s ethno-nationalist wing, he has described Pride Month as “disgusting,” is a proponent of deporting immigrants and peppers his speech with allusions white supremacist conspiracy theories.

“We have become clearer in what we what we want and what we think,” the 46-year-old rising star of the far right said of his party, known by its German acronym AfD. “We have more of the Trumpian style of communication.”

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Far-right experts say his recent election as lead candidate to represent the party in the 2024 European Parliament elections was just another sign of the AfD’s increasing radicalization.

But while the party is becoming unpalatable as a partner even to some of Europe’s most radical right-wing populists, it is attracting a record number of German voters.

In recent months the AfD has surged to become the second strongest political force in the country after the opposition Christian Democrats, polling at around 21 percent, ahead of all members of the country’s liberal governing coalition.

Buoyed by the cost-of-living crisis and immigration angst, its rise has caused soul-searching for a country still mindful of its Nazi past. And for the conservative Christian Democrats, which are leading the polls, the increasing temptation to cooperate presents an existential dilemma.

The AfD is in a process of “progressive radicalization” and is “very, very far to the right” in comparison to other far-right parties in Europe, said German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel. “The strange thing so far is that this radicalization has not been punished in voter polls.”

Members of the German citizen initiative “Grannies Against the Right” hold up placards during a demonstration against the far-right Alternative for Germany in Magdeburg in July. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images)

While other European far-right parties, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, have toned down and turned their focus to courting more centrist conservatives, the AfD stands apart.

“The experts and pundits always tell us that if you want to have better election results, you have to give up your positions, you should become a more centrist style party,” said Krah, who has eight children by three women and also dishes out dating advice for German men on his TikTok channel.

“We are not the kind of singer that asks what your audience wants and then sings a song,” he said, speaking via Zoom from Brussels. “We have a clear ideology.”

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At the European Union level, even Hungarian populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban last year said he was “forced to sacrifice relations with the AfD on the altar of good international relations” while far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini has indicated he’s looking for more centrist allies.

“The AfD is openly radicalizing, whereas other European populist parties have gone the other way,” said Benjamin Höhne, a political scientist at the University of Münster. “They have a hardcore extremist core, but around the party they try to give a normal image. But not in Germany. Still, it works for them.”

At the summit in Magdeburg over weekends in late July and early August, 600 candidates vied to represent the party and adopt an election program that branded the European Union a “failed project.”

Guest speakers included Bulgarian right-wing extremist Kostadin Kostadinov, who fondly referred to the alliance between Germany and Romania during both world wars and called for Germany to take “its rightful place as a great power, and not only in Europe.”

One would-be candidate is being investigated by authorities after making homophobic slurs during his speech.

Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, accused speakers of spreading “right-wing extremist conspiracy theories,” including the “great replacement theory,” which holds that elites are plotting to replace White Europeans with non-White populations.

“It is already apparent that people who have attracted attention in the past with positions that are not compatible with our free democratic basic order will be part of the AfD delegation in the upcoming European Parliament,” he said.

The party has so far failed to overturn a decision by the agency to put it under surveillance, with a Cologne court ruling in March last year that there were “sufficient indications of anti-constitutional endeavors within the party” to justify its monitoring.

The summit and the nomination of Krah “complete the transformation” of the AfD from its early iteration when it was an anti-euro party to “a clearly extremist far-right party,” said Johannes Kiess, a researcher on right-wing extremism at the University of Leipzig.

Krah rejects the notion that the party is becoming more extreme or that he’s to the right of it, while at the same time espousing the “remigration” — or effective deportation — of refugees and defends the “great replacement theory” as being fact.

The idea that immigrants are replacing ethnic Germans is “a description” of the situation rather than a conspiracy theory, said Krah, who also doesn’t see an issue with saying that Germany should reclaim its rightful place in the world.

“Germany is a country in a crisis, and it’s not just an economic crisis. It’s also an identity crisis,” he said. “It’s a crisis where Germans forgot to be proud of their own fathers and grandfathers. Mothers and grandmothers.”

Members of the AfD, from left, include Leif-Erik Holm, Maximilian Krah, Alexander Gauland and Joerg Urban. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The AfD’s record-high position in the polls comes amid brimming dissatisfaction with Germany’s ruling three-party coalition, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats.

It also comes on the back of multiple crises, including the pandemic and war in Ukraine that have boosted populists Europe wide.

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Krah puts the party’s success down to the population’s distain for liberal policies on climate, gender and LGBT issues, immigration and the war in Ukraine, saying established political parties have no answer to real issues German face.

Analysts, however, chalk much of the party’s gains up to protest voting. In polls, voters can express their dissatisfaction “risk-free,” said Merkel, the political scientist. “And the strongest way to express this is to vote for the most radical political formation.”

He estimates around half those saying they will vote for the party are protest voters. “Polls are not election results,” he said.

But with European elections only nine months away and votes in the eastern German states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia — where the AfD is polling around 10 points higher than the national average — set for fall of next year, the poll numbers have caused alarm.

A continued slow economy and high inflation could help the AfD, said Höhne, the analyst. “When people can buy their house and their car and they can go on vacation, it’s easier to support democracy.”

Germany still remains behind other countries in Europe when it comes to teaming up with the far right. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi brought Meloni into government as a minister in 2008, but such alliances are still a political taboo in Germany.

But the party’s increased success makes it difficult for others to make viable political coalitions without them. However, recent comments by Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democrats, hinting that his party could work together with the AfD at a political level appear to be “testing the waters,” said Kiess.

And for the moment, Krah and his colleagues exude a confidence. “The right wing is on rise,” he said. “And that’s Europe wide.”

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