Europe

German Nationalists Double Down on Extremism

The anti-immigrant AfD party rejected calls for moderation despite its dwindling popularity.

Merkel must be smiling.

Photographer: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

While the world's attention was drawn to the French presidential election and the performance of extreme nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen (who came second on Sunday), her ideological brethren in Germany were going through some public soul-searching. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ended up rejecting a move toward the mainstream and empowering its most right-wing members ahead of the September general election.

Last weekend, the AfD party conference took place in Cologne. About 15,000 protesters gathered in front of the Maritim Hotel, where the event was held, promising to turn the city into hell for the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party's delegates. The neighboring brewery, Brauerei zur Malzmuehle, proclaimed "No koelsch for Nazis" on its front, making it clear AfD members weren't welcome to taste the famous local beer. By the end of the conference, the hotel's management was also having second thoughts.

That's the kind of baggage the party's co-leader Frauke Petry was hoping eventually to lose. She came to the conference with a proposal that contrasted "fundamental opposition" to the established parties with an openness to participating in coalitions with them. She favored the latter, saying the "realpolitik strategy" could "lead to success in a shorter time span."

The reason other parties don't want to enter into coalitions with the AfD is because it's toxic: It houses plenty of known bigots who have affronted mainstream German voters with their views. Well aware of the problem, Petry has tried to kick two of them out of the party this year. Bjoern Hoecke, a member of the legislature in the eastern state of Thuringia, made himself famous with a January speech in which he railed against the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. "We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital," he said. Wolfgang Gedeon, a local parliament member from the western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, has, for his part, pointed to Jews' history as an "inner enemy" of Christendom (and then defended himself by saying the remarks had dealt with ancient history and thus weren't anti-Semitic).

Petry, who considers both men a burden to the AfD and who started formal expulsion proceedings against them, knew she was in trouble with the party base when Hoecke's local organization voted overwhelmingly to send him to the party conference. He couldn't come: Maritim formally banned him from the premises. Gedeon, however, showed up -- and watched Petry's fall from grace.

"We are not those who will surrender Germany," her co-leader, Joerg Meuthen, declared in response to Petry's proposal that the party become more flexible. The conference wouldn't even vote on her "realpolitik" strategy document. It also wouldn't have her as the single lead candidate in the September election. The party instead selected a duo of election leaders. One of them, Alexander Gauland, a party co-founder from the eastern state of Brandenburg, is known for saying about a national hero, soccer star Jerome Boateng, who is of Ghanaian descent, that people might like him as a footballer but they wouldn't want him as a neighbor. The other, Alice Weidel, is seen as something of a moderate within the party because she's an openly lesbian Goldman Sachs alumna who backed Hoecke's expulsion, but she's harshly anti-Islamic in her public pronouncements. 

The party's electoral program, adopted at the conference, is strongly anti-Muslim, too. It states that "Islam doesn't belong in Germany" and calls for bans on minarets, calls to prayer, Muslim headdresses and even Halal meat (the slaughtering process is described as cruel to animals). Germany's Muslim population of five million is called out as a "a big danger to our state, our society and our values," going a step further than the party's general program: "An Islam that doesn't accept our laws doesn't belong in Germany."

Despite the rejection of her relatively moderate ideas by the party base, and what looks like a shift to the right instead of to the center, Petry has not stepped down from her post in the party leadership and intends to fight on. But at least in the current electoral cycle, the AfD no longer wants to apologize for any radical nationalist statements or pretend that it wants to be one of Germany's so-called "buergerliche Parteien," or mainstream civic forces. It wants to be free to preach the nationalist gospel that has recently allowed it to expand its support base and get into 11 of 16 state legislatures.

That, as Petry pointed out in her ill-fated strategy proposal, is the easier choice. But it's also rather nearsighted. The AfD's poll ratings are down from their 15 percent high, which followed the Christmas terror attack in Berlin, to about 10 percent. So far this year, their average showing in major polls is 10.7 percent, compared with 12 percent in 2016. That, of course, is still more than twice as much as the 4.7 percent the party received in the 2013 election, but it's not the kind of result that will make AfD, shunned by every other political force, influential in the next parliament.

Selling ultranationalism in Germany is a risky business. A more moderate, coalition-capable AfD could have hoped to attract the members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party whom Petry has called "emotionally homeless." It also could have drawn some of its more impatient, younger activists hoping for quicker careers leading to national office. As a far-right preserve, the AfD is unattractive to these people. Merkel can only celebrate the outcome of the rival right-wing party's conference.

Le Pen knows that as the leader of a much older right-wing force; that's why she has worked to move her National Front into the mainstream and even kicked out her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, for statements no more offensive than those made by Hoecke and Gedeon. That has allowed her to get the consistent support of more than 20 percent of French voters -- something the AfD can only dream of in Germany. By refusing to head in that direction, the AfD risks proving useless to its base and turning into a tiny dot on the radars after a couple of relatively successful years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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