With Merkel's Foes in Disarray, Germany Defies the Trump Trend

  • Frauke Petry, AfD’s public face, won’t be top party candidate
  • Riven by infighting, AfD has lost a third of its poll support

Populism Takes Over the World

Back in January, Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party shared a stage with her fellow populist leaders from across Europe to mark what was billed as “the Year of Patriots.”

Buoyed by the election of Donald Trump, Petry joined Marine Le Pen of France and Dutchman Geert Wilders in the German city of Koblenz to predict that Europe’s establishment was about to be swept away.

Frauke Petry in Koblenz.

Photographer: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

Three months later, the meeting at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers looks like it may have been the high-water mark for Petry and her party. The AfD has since lost a third of its support as it descended into infighting, and this week Petry relinquished her bid to lead the party’s campaign for this year’s German elections.

It’s a dramatic reversal for a party that until recently posed the most serious threat in years to Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic-led bloc. While several factors have contributed to the AfD’s slide, not least the easing of the refugee crisis that helped it to reach record highs in the polls last year, many voters in Germany have been turned off the populist message by the performance of the Trump administration, according to Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at the Technical University of Dresden.

Trump’s early days in office show that “it’s not enough to come to power with populist positions,” Patzelt said in an interview. “Reality gets in the way.” In addition, he said that Merkel’s party and its affiliates “have changed their refugee policy by nearly 180 degrees, without, of course, declaring that they have done so.”

Cologne Convention

AfD delegates will attempt to turn around the party’s fortunes this weekend as they gather in Cologne for a national convention that is due to decide on their main candidates and platform for the Sept. 24 election. Outside the meeting in Germany’s fourth-largest city, thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest a party they accuse of spreading xenophobia and racism.

The party met three days after Petry, the 41-year-old public face of the party, responded to sustained political attacks from right-wing rivals by announcing that she won’t be a top contender for the vote, which supporters hope -- and polls have long suggested -- will propel the AfD into the federal parliament for the first time.

“It’s a pity for the party,” Georg Pazderski, the AfD’s leader in Berlin’s state parliament, said in an interview. “I can relate to that from a human perspective because I noted in recent weeks that the attacks on her were very, very abusive in some cases.”

Petry sought to allay the atmosphere of disunity at the party conference, railing against Merkel’s “multicultural and socially destructive” policies and calling for a return to a “Europe of sovereign states.”

“Let’s try to engage a broad sector of the population,” Petry said on Saturday. “We won’t surrender the playing field and the government bench to the old parties and their shouting supporters outside.”

As National Front leader Le Pen moves within reach of the French presidency and Wilders builds on his Freedom Party’s seats in parliament, the AfD has been riven by internal battles over the party’s direction. Formed to protest euro-area bailouts before the focus was shifted to immigration, Petry’s camp now says it wants to plot a course toward the political mainstream. Her rivals, particularly among right-wing nationalists, accuse Petry of concentrating too much power in her hands. 

Holocaust Memorial

The current rift broke open in January when Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, gave a speech in which he assailed Germany’s atonement for the Nazi era. Referencing the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin’s center, Hoecke said that Germans were the only people who “planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.” The comments drew a firestorm of criticism from across the political spectrum, including from Petry, who is pushing for Hoecke’s expulsion from the AfD.

The party convention was shaping up to be a showdown between Petry and her political foes. In a video statement, Petry said it would decide “what kind of future strategy” the party would adopt. “So far, different parts of the AfD have pursued different strategies -- although one must understand that the AfD’s image has recently been dominated by the strategy of fundamental opposition.”

The infighting has translated into dwindling poll numbers, abetted by the easing of anxiety over the influx of a million refugees, which dominated public debate throughout 2016, and by the revival of support for the Social Democrats under Martin Schulz.

Taking on Schulz

By channeling German fears and anxieties over the worst refugee crisis since World War II, the AfD had threatened to revive the specter of far-right nationalism in a country that has spent the entire postwar period trying to ensure such sentiment never returns. Now Merkel has a window of opportunity to focus on the more potent threat ahead of the election: Schulz’s Social Democrats.

For a profile of the Social Democratic leader, click here

Polls show Merkel’s faction gaining ground after the SPD initially surged on the back of Schulz’s surprise emergence in January as her challenger. Her CDU-led bloc is polling at 34-36 percent support compared to the SPD’s 30-32 percent. The AfD has 8-10 percent, down from a high of about 15 percent in December.

It’s still too early to write the party off, both amid signs that the SPD’s “Schulz effect” may have peaked and Merkel’s continued vulnerability on the refugees issue and on terrorism. Petry remains the party’s co-leader alongside Joerg Meuthen, an economics professor. And unless she resigns the post, she’ll still be in charge and able to help the AfD regroup however the party navigates the turbulence through the weekend.

“Certainly some mistakes have been made in the past,” said the AfD’s Pazderski. But as far as he is concerned, Petry “will continue to play a very important role.”

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