Germans Turn to Trump-Style Politics in Challenge to Merkel

Anti-Establishment Vote Punishes Merkel Over Immigration
  • Leader Petry says police must shoot if refugees come illegally
  • AfD has seats in eight regional assemblies after Sunday votes

If you think Donald Trump has some outrageous ideas, wait until you meet Germany’s AfD party.

The Alternative for Germany, to give the party its full name, has shaken up the country’s consensus-driven politics with headline-grabbing policies that include telling Germans to have more children to avoid the need for immigration. Frauke Petry, the AfD’s co-leader, has said that police must “prevent illegal border crossings, using firearms if necessary.”

Frauke Petry in Berlin on March 13
Frauke Petry in Berlin on March 13
Photographer: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Like Trump, her rhetoric hasn’t damaged AfD support but rather struck a chord with those disgruntled with the establishment parties, in particular nabbing voters unhappy with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees. The party surged to record support in Sunday’s regional elections, taking seats in all three states that voted and boosting its representation to half of Germany’s 16 regional assemblies. The AfD had its strongest showing in Saxony-Anhalt with 24.2 percent, making it the second-biggest party in the former communist eastern state, according to preliminary official results.

The rise of the AfD in Germany mirrors growing support for populist politicians such as National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France and Trump, who has called for banning Muslims from emigrating to the U.S. Like Trump, Petry regularly gives the media that hang on her every word a tongue-lashing. The Bavarian public broadcaster reported Monday that one of its reporters was roughed up at a Sunday AfD rally. One German newspaper even ran a quiz asking readers to attribute statements to Trump or Petry.

“We have fundamental problems in Germany that led to this outcome,” Petry told broadcaster ARD in explaining the party’s surge. “Now we want to force the other parties into a substantive debate.”

The German political establishment is having none of it, vowing instead to band together to keep the AfD out of government. Petry has responded by saying her party plans to take on an opposition role to push AfD policies in the face of what they see as a cartel of established politicians.

The AfD began in 2013 out of opposition to the euro and taxpayer-funded bailouts of countries such as Greece. Co-founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor who focused the party on the euro, quit last year after losing a power struggle with rivals including Petry, 40, an East German-born chemist. The AfD failed to win seats in the German parliament in 2013, though it entered the European Parliament the following year. It still wants to dissolve the 19-nation euro area.

Several senior party members are defectors from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who view her as pulling the party to the political left. Alexander Gauland, a regional AfD leader and former CDU member, has said the anti-Islam protesters who’ve been staging weekly demonstrations in German cities are allies. Rallies by Pegida -- the German acronym stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West -- are a forum for protesters who oppose Merkel’s refugee policy and call her a traitor.

Petry has urged Germans to have three children to reduce the need for immigration and suggested German policy is driven by Holocaust guilt.

The party wants restrictions on political asylum, stronger enforcement of existing laws -- including deportations of refugees who don’t qualify for asylum -- and demands that the government “protect the national identity,” according to a resolution passed at a party convention in November. Its campaign platform for Baden-Wuerttemberg calls the governing parties “saboteurs of our state and our society” and says the AfD is the voice of the “awakening resistance of the bourgeoisie.”

The AfD is “a protest party with no competence on the issues,” Ulrich Grillo, head of the BDI industry federation, said in a statement on Monday, characterizing the results as a “wake-up call” for the country’s old-line parties. Petry and AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen rejected Grillo’s criticism, saying the party seeks to support medium-sized businesses, the backbone of the German economy, unlike the big corporations Grillo represents.

Along with the surge in the eastern state, the AfD won double-digit backing in the two western regions that voted Sunday. The party received 15.1 percent support in Baden-Wuerttemberg and 12.6 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate. The threshold needed to win seats in 5 percent.

Germany has seen political movements come and go. The Pirate Party, which campaigns for data privacy, won seats in four German state legislatures in 2012 only to fizzle by the federal election the next year. The anti-capitalist Left took almost 12 percent of the national vote in 2009 after the global financial crisis, then retreated to less than 9 percent in the next election four years later.

“The AfD is now more established and will probably have more staying power than its predecessors,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note. But even after doing well in regional protest votes, the party “would remain light years away from any position of influence.”

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