In depth: Is Alternative for Germany becoming too extreme?
The Alternative for Germany (AfD)'s popularity is growing despite a series of controversies. Now, as it faces calls for state surveillance over perceived ties with far-right extremists, we asked what it means for the party's future.
Photos showing an AfD leading member marching alongside the far-right protest group Pegida prompted politicians to make fresh calls this week for Germany’s domestic security agency to monitor the party, now the second most popular in Germany behind the Social Democrats (SPD).
The populist AfD, founded in 2013 as an anti-Euro party, is known for views that run the gamut from job creation in deindustrialized areas to stricter caps on refugees.
They provided a welcome change for many looking for an alternative to more radical National Party of Germany (NPD), which is known for being openly racist and only garnered a small percentage of votes, even in Saxony.
Yet when Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, joined members of the far-right, anti-Islam group Pegida, during a march in the east German town of Chemnitz at the weekend, alarm bells sounded for many.
The demonstration on Saturday was held following a series of protests in the town prompted by the death of a man, who was allegedly stabbed by two immigrants. The gathering, which was called by the AfD, was advertised as a silent march to remember the victim, Daniel H., 35.
However, after pictures emerged of Höcke with Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann, politicians called for state surveillance of the party which they said was needed to ensure the safety of the German constitution.
The Social Democrats (SPD)' Thomas Opperman, vice president of the German Bundestag, said it was a “turning point” that shows “how the AfD and the neo-Nazis cooperate”.
Later on Tuesday, the authorities in Saxony said they would not monitor the party.
However, in a separate move, the youth wings of the AfD (Jung Alternative or JA) were put under surveillance in Bremen and Lower Saxony amid concerns over right wing extremism.
The AfD said these youth associations are now being disbanded due to security concerns for the whole party - but does the latest bad press do any damage to the reputation of the party or will it escape unharmed?
Participants at a rally of AfD Görlitz hold a German national flag and a flag with Pegida logo. Photo: DPA.
'AfD behaviour could be viewed as too extreme'
Pegida (which stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) is viewed by mainstream politicians as a thorn in the side of Germany since the group began protesting in Dresden against immigration in October 2014 every Monday. It quickly gained momentum, with some gatherings swelling in size to over 10,000 people.
In the past, the AfD has sought to distance itself from the group, and far-right organizations like it. However, some AfD party members have acknowledged that both groups share a common cause because of their anti-immigrant stance.
German political scientist Florian Hartleb, author of The Rise of Populism: Lessons for the European Union and the United States of America, said the AfD’s reputation might be damaged if the party is seen as too extreme.
“The AfD has to be careful not to be too radical, or like the NPD."
Lawmakers in Germany have tried twice - unsuccessfully - to ban the NPD, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
The first attempt in 2003 failed because there wasn't enough evidence to declare them unconstitutional, a court said. The second attempt last year was unsuccessful because a court ruled the NPD was too weak to pose a real threat, although its politics were "incompatible with democracy".
Hartleb said the “only hope” for mainstream politicians was for voters to see the AfD’s behaviour in Chemnitz as “too much”.
“People might feel shocked” about the pictures of neo-Nazis, Pegida members and extremists alongside AfD, and “that they (the AfD) have solidarity and are not showing any distance to the extremists,” added Hartleb.
Surveillance could contribute to popularity
So what would happen to the party's reputation if the AfD, which entered the Bundestag last year for the first time after securing almost 13 percent of the vote, were put under full state surveillance in future?
Well, it's a mixed picture, according to commentators.
It’s been reported that support increased by two points after the Chemnitz riots. Its support in the east German state of Saxony, where Chemnitz is located, stands at around 25%.
Meanwhile, in a recent survey, just under 60% of Germans polled said they were in favour of the AfD being monitored. That is despite Germany's experiences with two oppressive regimes, which contributes to nervousness around the theme of surveillance.
Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt said a move to monitor the party would “certainly contribute to the success of the AfD”.
“At least some of our responsible politicians know that putting the AfD under surveillance would increase the percentage of votes for the AfD at least by 5%,” he told The Local.
“Putting this party under surveillance expresses the fact that these established parties no longer know how to behave with the AfD because the AfD has become a strong party.
Patzelt said the AfD is struggling to be seen as ‘normal’ party, “while the other political parties including the government tries to show that the AfD is no normal party at all, but a danger to German democracy”.
'An enormous symbolic act'
Putting the AfD under state surveillance would be a “symbolic act”, Patzelt said.
“We have had for the last year repeated discussions on whether the AfD should be put under surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which would be an enormous symbolic act showing to the people: this is not a regular party,” he said.
That the AfD disbanded their youth wings after they were put under surveillance was a significant move, according to Patzelt.
“It’s a struggle for symbols and for impression management,” he said.
Patzelt added that the AfD is still struggling with its own inner-party relations.
“There’s always been a party struggle about the reputation of the party,” he said.
“In this respect, the youth organizations of the AfD always have been much more radical than the AfD itself.
“Therefore beyond the symbolic function of dissolving the youth organisations there’s an instrumental: getting rid of radical young party members.”
Whether this dissolution is effective in practice remains to be seen, he said.
In response to the calls, five AfD representatives, including its two chairmen, Alexander Gauland, and Jörg Meuthen, said in a statement: “We are a democratic party which stands up for the constitutional state.
"The AfD fights against extremists who abuse authorized protests in order to advertise their anti-democratic world view.”
The main issue on the minds of voters
Everything comes down to the immigration issue, according to Hartleb.
“The problem is that since 2015 there is only one topic: the migration/refugee crisis. any citizens still feel this topic is neglected.
“The bomb is ticking and, in the case of Chemnitz, it exploded,” he added.
Despite this, it's worth noting that a huge number of Germans have shown solidarity towards migrants and refugees. This was shown when around 65,000 people attended a unity concert on Monday night, in contrast to the estimated 8,000 who attended the far-right rallies.
However, Patzelt said he believed protest over immigration policies would continue.
"My feeling is the protests in Chemnitz will calm down in days to come but there will be similar protests in the coming months in different cities, I soon as there are some incidents between migrants and the general population.”
The problem of immigration without integration is not being solved, he added.
“All these reactions to the Chemnitz events will only contribute to further sympathising with the AfD."