But with Chancellor Angela Merkel retiring after general elections this Sunday, the AfD is about to lose its favourite scapegoat.
Though it appears to have lost support since 2017, currently polling at around 11 percent, the party – whose initials stand for “Alternative for Germany” – has become firmly rooted in the country’s political landscape.
But now, with “Merkel must go” redundant, the anti-immigration, anti-establishment party is having to direct its anger elsewhere.
“The chancellor’s departure is a good thing because it creates a space for change,” Tino Chrupalla, one of the AfD’s two top candidates for the elections on September 26th, told AFP.
“But the consequences of the Merkel era will weigh on Germany for a long time,” he said.
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The AfD blames Merkel for “mass illegal immigration” after her 2015 decision to leave Germany’s borders open to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, for the “expensive” phasing out of nuclear power and for “endless financial bailouts” of southern European countries.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit, the AfD seized on xenophobia and anti-Islam sentiment, especially in the former East Germany, to win 12.6 percent of the vote in 2017.
But with political priorities changing in Germany, the party has had to reinvent itself.
“This period of personalisation is over,” Chrupalla says. “We must now attack the political agenda of globalism, even if it doesn’t have a name.”
“It’s not about Merkel as a person but the system she represents,” says Christoph Berndt, head of the Zukunft Heimat (Future Homeland), a far-right group in the former East German state of Brandenburg.
The three leading candidates vying to replace Merkel as chancellor are Armin Laschet of Merkel’s CDU, Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.
“We can easily replace ‘Merkel must go’ with ‘Laschet must go’, ‘Scholz must go’ or ‘Baerbock must go’,” says Berndt.
In his view, the movement will have achieved its objective only “when her political decisions have been overturned and Merkel is held politically and, if necessary, legally responsible”.
“By not closing Germany’s borders in 2015 when refugees arrived in Germany via Hungary and the Balkan route, Merkel became evil personified for the German far right,” says Jan Riebe of the anti-racism foundation Amadeu Antonio.
The slogan “Merkel must go” was “more a slogan against the system than against the person and will be transferrable to something more abstract”, agrees Miro Dittrich, a specialist at the far-right observatory CeMAS.
This “may not work as well as having Merkel as a scapegoat, but it will certainly not lead to a lasting weakening of the far right,” Riebe says.
“Germany will continue to be slammed as a dictatorship and Scholz and Laschet as representatives of the Merkel system. And if Baerbock becomes chancellor, the hatred of some people may boil over,” he adds.
Beyond personalities, the AfD will also have to rethink its focus on migration. According to a recent poll by the Bild daily, only 20 percent of Germans consider migration a priority, well behind climate protection (35 percent) or pensions (33 percent).
To add to its problems, the AfD has also been plagued by internal disputes between its more radical fringe and supporters of a more moderate course.
The party’s efforts to court voters from Germany’s sizeable anti-mask movement, with members joining rallies against virus measures, have also so far largely failed to bear fruit.
By David COURBET