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.