Since World War II, no far-right nationalist movement leaders have held any seats in the German parliament, but this changed during the 2017 German elections. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won 12.6 percent of the vote in the election which gave them 94 seats in parliament. How did the AfD gain enough support to have seats in parliament? Why did the far-right return to Germany? The AfD used populistic tactics and the growing anti-immigration sentiments to gain votes, but the most recent German election shows that populism can be slowed down or maybe even reversed.
One area that we can point to for the growing populism in Germany is the increasing polarization in the country. According to Julian Goppfarth, a researcher at the London School of Economics, Merkel had been moving the CDU farther center since 2005, and this caused people within the party to be unsatisfied. The AfD presented itself as a great alternative for those voters who felt like the CDU was no longer right winged enough. We see this trend also in Greece with the rise of the GD (Dinas et al 2019). In Greece, voters who previously voted for the center-right Nea Demokratia changed their vote to the extreme-right GD.
Another reason for the increase in support for the AfD during the 2017 election is the anti-immigration sentiment within Germany. It is perhaps more accurate to say rising anti-Islam sentiments. These immigrants are mostly asylum seekers, but studies show that not all asylum seekers are equal in the eyes of European voters (Bansak et al 2016). According to these studies, Muslim refugees are 11 percent less likely to be accepted than their Christian counterparts. (Bansak et al 2016) These same studies also conferred that Christian asylum seekers are only slightly more likely to be accepted than agnostic asylum seekers, so these sentiments truly are anti-Islam. Germany has admitted thousands of refugees, many of them Muslim, which has drawn much criticism from the AfD. Alexander Gauland, one of the AfD’s leading candidates in the 2017 elections, stated that he is beginning to feel like a foreigner in his own country. The first leader of the AfD, Bernd Lucke, resigned in 2015 because he felt that the party was becoming increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic. There is strong evidence that suggests that extreme far-right parties can convert anti-Islam sentiment and use it as fuel to get voters to vote for them (Dinas et al 2019). This is what the AfD did in Germany.
One of the most important reasons for the AfD’s success in the 2017 elections is its populist rhetoric. Mudde states that a frequent populist appeal is addressing the interest and ideas of “the common people” (Mudde 2017). By doing so, it integrates an angry and silent majority and also creates a divide between the people and an enemy. “The people ” can be framed in whichever way poplulist leaders see fit to which is why populism is such a powerful ideology; it can be used by politicians to mobilize any group of people as long as there is an enemy to scapegoat and blame. Sometimes, populist politicians target the people native to the country, but this is not always the case. In the United States, populist rhetoric is not referring to Native Americans when referencing “the people.” It more so refers to White Americans who feel threatened by the decreasing percent of the white population, so Donald Trump was able to use populist rhetoric to appeal to white supremacy and mobilize white Americans. In the case of the United Kingdom and Germany, however, “the people” that populist politicians targeted were mostly those who felt disadvantaged by globalization, and the enemy was mainly outsiders, so they appealed to them with anti immigrant sentiments. When the United Kingdom left the European Union, the Brexit Leave Campaign targeted voters by using anti-establishment and anti-immigration sentiment (Hobolt 2016). “The people” in this case were the working class who felt like the losers of globalization, so the Leave Campaign mobilized them by making the European Union and immigrants the enemy. Germany is similar in which the enemies are immigrants—mainly Muslims, so the AfD united their voters by othering Muslims.
Although the 2017 elections paint a gloomy picture, there is still hope. Germany held their most recent election on September 26, 2021.The AfD still garnered enough support to have seats in parliament, but they did receive less votes as compared to the 2017 elections. This gives us the hopeful message that democratic erosion can be slowed down and also, perhaps, reversed. While anti-immigration sentiment is a big contributor to the growing populist movement, European policy makers can garner more public acceptance of asylum seekers by highlighting refugees’ vulnerability, deservingness, and contributions to society.
Hey! I really enjoyed your look at the reemergence of the far-right in German politics and society. What I found particularly interesting was how you discussed the political response of the German government, where the CDU tacked to the political center in response to the threat of the AFD siphoning votes from the right. It reminded me of a journal reflection by Nancy Bermeo titled “Can American Democracy Still Be Saved?” about democratic backsliding in the US that I feel resonates with Germany’s case. Bermeo wrote that “democracy endures when key actors distance themselves from would-be authoritarians,” and how there is little appetite among center-right public officials in the US to do so. As you said though, Merkel was adamant in distancing her party from the AFD in spite of the electoral losses that might come with it- and while her party lost in this last election it did not give ground to the far-right.
A report from the U.S. Agency for International Development titled “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding” by Ellen Lust and David Waldner showcases why this is true. The pair conceptualized democratic backsliding as changes made in “formal political institutions and informal political practices” that reduced the influence of citizens on the actions of the government. While Merkel’s actions were not solely responsible for stunting AFD’s rise, by rooting her Chancellorship in a moderate and centrist platform that held mass appeal across German society she was able to keep the national debate centered on the views of the majority while upholding the informal practice of German democracy rebuking far-right extremism.
I do agree with you that there is hope that German society, with the help of the government and political leaders, can continue to address the rise of the far-right and continue to work against it. Thanks!
Hi Tay! I really enjoyed your blog post. Overall, I think you did a really great job. I loved how you grabbed the reader’s attention in the first paragraph by emphasizing how many years it has been since people with far right views have held positions of power in Germany’s parliament and how that is all starting to change now since the AfD party won 94 seats in the 2017 election. This is an astonishing fact for Germany to go from 0 to 94 and that immediately makes people interested in what else you are going to say. I also liked your ending and how you looked to the future in saying that there is hope for the future of Germany and it is not headed towards complete far right control. Something that I think you could possibly explore more is in between stages of these two elections. Specifically, what took place in those four years that made the AfD less favorable in the eyes of the public? What led to this far right downfall? You attributed a lot of the success of the AfD party in 2017 to the populist rhetoric that they used, you could potentially compare that rhetoric used in 2017 to that used in 2021 to see if there are differences in the way that the general public responded to it that could have led to their loss of seats. Something that I think that you would find super interesting is the Day X podcast. It dives into far right extremism in Germany and explores their approach to combating the threat they face from within. It is super interesting. I enjoyed it a lot. I think it will help deepen your contextual knowledge of far right extremism in Germany, how it grew, and how authorities and people in power are responding to it now. Keep up the great work and good luck with your future research of Germany!
Hallo und gutten tag,
Tay, I found your article on the rise of the AfD very interesting. I think your points made on AfD leaders using populist rhetoric to energize voters and gain support were right. I think its important to note populist rhetoric by itself does little. In order for the AfD to be successful in convincing people to follow their view points they needed to feed off some underlying form of insecurity. There are countless sources of this insecurity; however, like in many other countries, in Germany I think the driving force is inequality. In Germany, I see a possible inequality in opportunity in their the education system. The system in Germany sets students on preordained paths from early on. There are clear winners and losers from these types of systems, I cant help but wonder if the people set on lower paths are given ample opportunity to progress. With an influx of immigrants competing for jobs I could see the frustration in the system that has left certain groups less qualified to compete than others. The driving forces behind xenophobia, in the most basic form, is the sense that their is not enough for both us and them; I see that as a possible outcome, for some, in their education system. I also see a link between the educational system and the high income inequality in Germany. I liked that you ended your post on a positive note. It is interesting that other far right parties, for example the VOX party in Spain, have gained support during the same time frame, and the AfD has lost support. I think this has to do with the wide spread understanding of Germanys dark history. They are not shy about excepting, and more importantly teaching, about the dark past. They live with constant reminders of that past in the form of memorials and museums, which I think helps younger generations understand the dangers of xenophobia. Tay I very much appreciated your thought provoking post. Good work!
Hi Tay! You wrote a really thoughtful and engaging blog. The AfD was a recent topic of discussion in class, and it was nice to see someone else write about it here.
I do think it’s fascinating (yet very concerning) how a party that had never had seats in the Bundestag won nearly 100 of them in just one election. As you mentioned, they did lose seats in this year’s election, and their vote share slightly fell, too. That is an encouraging sign, but it’s still worrying that they have such a big presence in the country. I’m curious as to why you think that the AfD lost seats? A Washington Post article we examined in class found that the AfD primarily lost seats because of more centrist parties like the CDU and the Social Democrats (1). Do you think there might be other reasons to explain why they not only lost seats, but lost vote share?
The rise of the AfD makes me think of another far-right party: The National Rally (or National Front) in France. The party, led by Marine Le Pen, resembles the AfD in many ways. For one, they are arguably very anti-immigration. And like the AfD, their support comes from more rural areas of the country, such as in the north and east and some areas of the south (2). Support from rural or exurban areas for far-right and/or nationalist parties is a trend we’re seeing in Europe and elsewhere, too.
And to echo Haley’s point — if you haven’t already, Day X is a great listen!
I really enjoyed your look into why the far-right has been gaining traction in Germany lately, especially in regards to the populist response to globalism and how populism in Europe is different from populism in the United States. Although populism in the United States has become relevant in recent years since the election of Trump in 2016, who espoused anti-elite rhetoric, populism in Europe has emerged as more a result of anti-immigrant sentiment, especially if said immigrants are Muslim asylum seekers. It is the latter trend that has led to the rise of the AfD in Germany, which also ties into the rise of anti-globalism sentiment. Like you mentioned in this post, the “people” who are purportedly helped by populism in European countries are those who felt disadvantaged by globalism, especially with the recent flow of asylum seekers into their countries. As is apparently common in societies experiencing change, people want to look for someone to blame; in this case, the most easily identifiable representation of globalization is foreigners entering a new society. Thus, populist politicians see an opportunity to take advantage of people’s frustration, as illustrated by the rise of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign in the United Kingdom and the anti-immigrant (namely Muslim immigrants) attitude of the AfD in Germany. Although it is understandable to be frustrated by a quickly changing world as a result of globalization, causing previously unconnected regions to be more closely connected than ever, it is unfortunate that so many people turn to hateful rhetoric in tough times and thereby allow corrupt politicians to come into power.
I believe you made a very strong argument for the rebirth of far-right parties in Germany. This topic is important to democratic backsliding because it brings to attention how far-right parties have not held seats in the German parliament since WWII. Your post brings to attention the dangers of far-right parties accumulating votes by using populist tactics. It is also important that you noted how the anti-immigration platform can facilitate votes for far-right parties. I thought it was interesting how you pointed out the different treatment and acceptingness of immigrants from different backgrounds. It is definitely a threat to democracy that Christian immigrants are getting better treatment than Muslim immigrants because a true democracy ought to treat people from different backgrounds equally. Further, it is extremely undemocratic for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to use anti-Islam sentiment to get people to vote for them.
It is also important that you called attention to the harm of populist parties. They are not always for the people as they claim to be, and the AfD used populist rhetoric while campaigning. It is a threat to democracy to use terms like ‘the people’ and ‘the common people’ for only part of the population because that creates division from citizens with different ideologies and mindsets. As you stated, the AfD claimed that Muslims were the ‘other’ and not part of ‘the common people.’ Why do you think a group that is openly anti-Islamic could get so many votes? It is crucial that the AfD does not fave further successes in Germany because the party’s platform is a real threat to democracy.
The author makes a crucial argument by exploring the sentiment behind a shift to more right-wing politics in Germany. This shift in german ideology seems particularly critical when viewed in light of Germany’s historical context and contribution to a broader populist sentiment in Europe. He expands on the means by which Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland gains support among the electorate, namely by an anti-immigration rhetoric that emphasizes the differences between locals and foreigners and consequently implies a reduction in social cohesion. As the author mentioned, parallels can be drawn between European populism and US populism which is equally marketed by a shift in ideology among a working class that feels increasingly alienated and misrepresented by political elites. Regardless, there is a threat emerging from populist rhetorics since they harness support by arguably illegitimate means of exclusion, white supremacy and nationalism – frequently supported by unverified facts. At this point, there are important questions to be raised: while an increase in nationalism may not be inherently bad, does it leave states in a disadvantaged position in regard to foreign policy? Moreover, does the divergence in ideology among the electorate not further subside social cohesion? And lastly, are we at risk of repeating historical tragedies in regard to the systematic oppression of ethnic minorities? While Alternative für Deutschland can in no way be categorized as an established party with major political influence, we need to be aware of the implicit ramifications it imposes on society: An electorate defined by exclusive social groups that aim to enhance their voice by marginalizing others.