An alternative view at Alternative für Deutschland
Opinions European Union

An alternative view at Alternative für Deutschland

21 Jun 2017 - 11:56
Photo: Franz Ferdinand Photography / Flickr
Back to archive

In Europe there are several examples of rising (right-wing) populism, nationalism and anti-Europeanism: in France we have the Front National, in the Netherlands we may point to the popularity of the Partij voor de Vrijheid. In Germany there is a right-wing political party too: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Mainstream media describe AfD as a right-wing populist and Eurosceptic party. This classification, together with AfD’s popularity in the former German Democratic Republic, triggered us to analyse the programme and strategy of AfD. Based on research of primary and secondary sources we believe a more subtle view at this newcomer is needed: although the party has a rightist-conservative ideology and uses populist strategies, AfD in itself is not populist, anti-EU or racist.

Several political scientists, such as Ben Stanley and Cas Mudde, have focussed on the concept of populism; both Stanley and Mudde state we cannot consider populism as a ‘full ideology’, but as a ‘thin ideology’ which only focuses on a confined range of concepts. These conceptions come down to six ‘requirements’ for a party to be ‘populist’ and ‘Eurosceptic’: first, the existence of two homogenous units of analysis: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’; second, the antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite (‘us’ versus ‘them’); third, the idea of popular sovereignty and seeing ‘the people’ as one instead of a set of individuals; fourth, the positive valorisation of ‘the people’ and denigration of ‘the elite’; fifth, the promotion of authority and ‘nativism’ (protecting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants); and finally, in case of EU members, the level of Euroscepticism.

These characteristics serve as theoretical framework in this article and we will use this concept to analyse three cases: AfD’s election programme, the European refugee crisis and the mass violations in Cologne during the Silvesternacht 2015-2016. At the end we try to answer our main question: ‘to what extent can AfD be considered a right-populist and Eurosceptic party and what does this mean for the strategy-making of established political parties?’ In that way we want to come up with input in the strategy-making process of countering right-wing populism and Euroscepticism in Europe.

Election programme
According to Stanley, one of the most important factors for populism to be successful is the creation of pluralism within society. People’s unhappiness, due to unemployment, insecurity, or immigration, is crucial to scapegoat the political elite and by doing so, populism creates an atmosphere which can be categorised as us versus them. President Trump is an example of such populism, because of his effective use of dissatisfaction amongst the American people with the social, economic, and political situation in the United States. Trump blamed the American political elite and created pluralism by continuously emphasising the word us, for example in his victory speech: “Secretary Clinton congratulated us, it’s about us, on our victory.”

The people
The 96-page long election programme of AfD is quite critical towards the established political leadership and describes the current government in Germany as a political ‘Kartell’. This specific word is used because the AfD believes the political leadership consists of politicians who abuse power to serve their own interests and wealth. The programme also claims that only the German people can end this ‘illegitimate situation’; thereby AfD clearly places itself alongside the people. One of the proposed alternatives is the introduction of referenda which the people may use to support or reject a decision that has been made by Parliament. Another idea to increase the people’s direct influence is by limiting and controlling lobbying activities in Brussels and Berlin. With this, AfD wants to fight ‘corruption’ and to move the government’s focus to its most important objective, i.e. serving the people. AfD presents itself as a party fully in favour of direct influence by the German people and at the same time it strongly criticises the current political leadership.

Therefore, although it does not mention the words ‘political elite’ once, AfD’s election programme and the way the party tries to present itself meets the first four requirements of the theoretical framework of Mudde and Stanley, as described above.

'The Euro splits Europe' tagline on an AfD election placard in 2013. Source: Wikimedia
'The Euro splits Europe' tagline on an AfD election placard in 2013. Source: Wikimedia

The European Union
On the other hand, AfD is not principally against the European Union, although it does criticize the current state of the EU. In its election programme, the party opposes the development of the EU into a centralized Bundesstaat, as well as the idea of a ‘United States of Europe’. AfD also considers the Euro as a failed political experiment and in order to deprive its members from this ‘Fehlkonstruktion’ and the ongoing fiscal transfers, the party proposes dissolution of this currency union in an organised way. However, the party is not against the EU itself: it values and wishes to intensify the cooperation between member states on foreign and security policy-making and to live in “friendship with the other European countries”. This means, AfD is in favour of intra-European cooperation as long as the national sovereignty is respected and maintained, in other words, an ‘intergovernmentalist view’.

One may thus conclude that AfD’s programme is critical towards the current state of the EU and of integration, but it does not reject EU membership completely. Instead it proposes several reforms and an increase of intergovernmentalism instead of supranationalism. This makes the election programme ‘Soft-Eurosceptic’, which is not opposed to integration as such, but rejects the current state of European politics as well as the trajectory towards a closer union. ‘Hard-Euroscepticism’ refers to a principal rejection of European integration, incompatible with EU membership: a typical populist characteristic which, for example, the Dutch PVV and the French Front National do have.

Racism, nativism and Islam
The level of ‘nativism/racism’ in AfD’s message is interesting. AfD considers itself a conservative party that values German traditions, families, and culture which have to be protected. In order to prevent the national identity from splintering, the election programme proposes to increase the importance and usage of German culture and language instead of multiculturalism. Another part of the goal to rollback multicultural society and to tackle the aging of the German population is the (financial) support of German families who have two or more children, presented as an alternative to the ‘current strategy’ of migration from Islamic countries to Germany.

Party leader Frauke Petry is “completely in favour of freedom of religion”, but only if that religion respects the German norms, values, and laws as well as the international human rights. AfD does not believe the traditional Islamic values and beliefs are compatible with the German identity and rules and, therefore, it opposes the traditional Islam within Germany. However, the election programme also emphasises that fully integrated Muslims who reject traditional and radical Islamic ideologies, such as Salafism, are fully accepted and part of Germany, but “Der Islam gehört aber nicht zu Deutschland”.

AfD is critical at the current flow of migrants into Germany, but it does not want to treat these people different from native Germans

Regarding the label ‘racist’ or ‘nativist’, AfD does not differentiate based on race, because it solely focuses on traditional and radical Islamic ideologies: a contrast with populist Geert Wilders who wants to shut down mosques and ban the Koran. AfD itself rejects the notion that its views on Islam are ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’, instead it states the party is critical towards the Islam, and that the proposed plans, such as the prohibition of burcas and niqabs in public spaces, are mainly motivated by considerations of security and integration.

Moreover, AfD is critical at the current flow of migrants into Germany, but it does not want to treat these people different from native Germans. The party underlines the importance of fast integration and adaptation from immigrants in order to create an overarching policy, applicable for all German citizens. Hence AfD’s election programme cannot be labelled as ‘racist’ (it does not differentiate based on race, but solely on radical religious ideologies) nor as ‘nativist’ (it does not mention an unequal representation of interests of immigrants and native citizens).

At first sight, AfD’s strategy seems similar to those of acknowledged populists, but in fact it is less radical and obvious. AfD’s ideology and propositions cannot be seen as right-populist either, because it cannot be considered as racist or nativist. Finally, the fact that AfD is Soft-Eurosceptic emphasises that the election programme is not radical and ‘anti-establishment’ enough to be right-populist.

The European refugee crisis
Recent conflicts and tragic circumstances have caused an enormous flow of refugees towards Europe. The bulk of those refugees try to reach Northern European countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, but the vast majority moved towards Germany; since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015 an estimated 1.1 million people have arrived in Germany. Besides the fact that Germany is one of the largest and most prosperous countries of the European Union, the main reason for this mass inflow into Germany was chancellor Angela Merkel’s press conference on 31 August 2015 in which she invited refugees to come to Germany with her famous statement “Wir schaffen das”. From that moment on, Chancellor Merkel repeated these words countless times, thus emphasizing her decisiveness. However, this statement backfired and resulted in anger, frustration, and division amongst the German people.

As an anti-immigration party, AfD is very critical towards Germany’s policy in this matter. AfD increased its popularity in 2016 by focusing on the European refugee crisis and the notion that Germany is welcoming too many refugees. Frauke Petry’s party emphasises the risks of the current policy and inflow, e.g. the amount of illegal refugees in the country; the current and future costs (the Ministry of Finance estimated the costs of refugees until 2020 at 94 billion euro); and the fact that borders are still open, which makes Germany vulnerable to terrorist attacks. All these points of criticism are aimed at the coalition (SPD & CDU) and AfD states the current issues are a direct result of the “verantwortungslose und naive Willkommenskultur” from Angela Merkel.

AfD founders Konrad Adam (left), Bernd Lucke with Frauke Petry during the first AfD convention on 14 April 2013 in Berlin. Source: Wikimedia
AfD founders Konrad Adam (left), Bernd Lucke with Frauke Petry during the first AfD convention on 14 April 2013 in Berlin. Source: Wikimedia

Solutions proposed by AfD
Instead, AfD offers several ‘necessary’ solutions to (re)assure the internal security and stop the ongoing (illegal) inflow of refugees. The most important solution AfD proposes is closing and protecting the German borders to end the “illegal and uncontrolled” inflow of refugees. The proposal as such cannot be considered populist, but the way in which the party spreads its views does have populist features.

First of all, AfD exclusively blames the coalition and Chancellor Merkel for the current situation, for example by stating that Merkel’s Wir Schaffen das is jeopardizing Germany’s social stability and internal security. AfD used this strategy again following the terrorist attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin (December 19, 2016), in which twelve people were killed. Shortly after the attack, Marcus Pretzell, AfD representative in the European Parliament, tweeted: “When will the German state finally strike back? When will this dammed hypocrisy ever stop? Es sind Merkels Tote!” This tactic can be considered populist according to the theoretical framework, as it demonises the political leadership and places the AfD alongside ‘the people’.

The second policy proposal of AfD – which has meanwhile been accepted by Chancellor Merkel – is the establishment of central displacement centres to simplify and speed up the process of relocating refugees. Another solution offered by AfD is the founding of a central/federal bureau to fight terrorism and illegal migration, using the American FBI as example.

Regarding refugees, AfD is less critical towards the European Union, because it aims all criticism at Merkel’s government, in light of the upcoming national elections and AfD’s view that the current Chancellor is responsible for the escalation of the refugee crisis. In response, AfD wants to set an annual limit for the amount of refugees allowed into Germany, after Austria’s example. This proposal, together with the closure of national borders, is not compatible with EU policy, because it is a violation of the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, the AfD view should be considered a reform proposal instead of a rejection of the EU and the integration as such, which makes this proposal ‘Soft-Eurosceptic’, not ‘Hard-Eurosceptic’ or ‘anti Europe’.

It is tempting to consider the statements and ideas of AfD as racist or nativist, because of their radical and, for some, inhumane character. However, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, AfD does not differentiate on race, but solely on the reasons of migration and the total number of refugees, which is, according to AfD, crucial in assuring national security and stability. The propositions / solutions of AfD should not be labelled as nativist either, because they aim to limit the inflow- and speed up the return-process of refugees. This focus does not mean AfD wants to treat legal German immigrants different from native Germans, because it solely aims to limit the continuing inflow and to relocate people who have no perspective at asylum.

Silvesternacht Cologne
After the 2015/16 New Year’s Eve in Cologne, over 600 women reported matters of violations and robberies. The police report pointed in the direction of what AfD had warned for: illegal ‘refugees’ who stay in Germany and cause trouble. The youth party of AfD, Die Junge Alternative, responded by spreading an image of a pistol with the line: “If the government does not act, maybe the people will act on themselves in the future to keep an ‘Armlänge Abstand’, Frau Reker”, blaming Henriette Reker, Mayor of Cologne, for the mass violations, because she advocated the idea of remaining an arm’s length-distance away from each other.

The former Ossis see AfD as the alternative party that understands their concerns and could spread the German wealth more evenly

Another response came from the Rheinland-Pfalz AfD, posting a picture on Facebook which stated: “Köln ist Überall”. This strategy was, once again, aimed at gaining support by using public events and public opinion to deepen and widen their own views. Although AfD denied it was using these incidents for its campaign, Cologne was ‘ein Glücksfall’ for AfD, because the people’s fear and anger shifted many Germans towards the party. This resulted in a rise of AfD in the national elections-polls: in December 2015, AfD got 10 percent of the votes; this rose to 12 percent in February 2016; 13 percent in March; and to 14 percent in April.

These polls give some insight into the background of AfD-voters, namely, dissatisfied people who are influenced by current events and support politicians who say what comes to their mind first. Another aspect of the AfD electorate is that it substantially consists of people who live in former GDR Bundesländer, still facing economic backlog in comparison to the western parts of Germany. These former-Ossis see AfD as the alternative party that understands their concerns and could spread the German wealth more evenly.

Also, the party attracts right-extremists because AfD is the furthest right on the political spectrum where people actually can vote for (e.g. in contrast to Pegida). The leader of AfD-Thüringen, Björn Höcke, is such an example of right-extremism, as he stated the Holocaust-Mahnmal in Berlin is a “monument of disgrace”. This statement was strongly criticised by part of the AfD-leadership and led to the start of his removal process from the party, resulting in a decrease in the election-polls to 8.2 percent. Another consequence of this internal division is a growing number of party-members that wish to replace Petry as AfD-leader. These issues emphasise the internal ideological differences and are clearly damaging the party as a whole and Frau Dr. Petry in particular.

Recently, and only days before a crucial party congress in Cologne (April 22th and 23th, 2017), the dispute about leadership and strategy (the Salonfähige Realpolitik of Petry versus right radicalism of Alexander Gauland and others) even led to a video message of Petry on Wednesday April 19th  in which she announced her “Rücktritt” as campaign leader in the elections for parliament (September 2017).

Anti-AfD protest in Germany. 'Although the party has a rightist conservative ideology and uses populist strategies, AfD in itself is not populist, anti-EU or racist.' Source: Flickr /
Anti-AfD protest in Germany. 'Although the party has a rightist conservative ideology and uses populist strategies, AfD in itself is not populist, anti-EU or racist.' Source: Flickr /

Once again, we can conclude the AfD-strategy in the aftermath of the mass-violations in Cologne was populist, because it criticised and blamed the political leadership in an unconventional and apolitical way. By doing so, AfD placed itself alongside the people and, with that, it distinguished itself from ‘traditional politics’. The message and the proposals regarding Cologne were, however, not right-populist or Eurosceptic. The most important point of AfD-criticism was that local police and government had been withholding information about the Silvesternacht, in order to prevent an outbreak of turmoil and violence. AfD states the German people had the right to know what happened and the authorities are obliged to inform and warn its people for incidents like this.

Another proposal was to toughen up the punishment for violations and robberies from re-education programmes to actual prison time and, in the case of people without residence permit, removal from Germany. These points of criticism and the policy solutions are legitimate and shared by other European countries, such as the Netherlands. The matter of Euroscepticism is not very accurate for the incidents in Cologne, as AfD held the German national government responsible for this event. Due to this national focus, ‘Cologne’ did not lead to EU-scepticism or criticism from AfD.

Adjustment of approach
The party Alternative für Deutschland currently has a rightist conservative ideology and uses populist strategies, but the ideas and solutions as such are achievable and legitimate. From that point of view, the mainstream opinion about AfD needs some adjustment. The party focuses on restoring the internal security of Germany through a stronger state, administration, and police force and stopping the uncontrolled and unregistered inflow of refugees. The most important difference between AfD and, for instance, the Dutch PVV, is that AfD presents well-funded solutions that could be realised and effective, such as the emergence of displacement centres.

It is often suggested that AfD’s rise poses a threat to the EU. However, in our opinion, although AfD has several Eurosceptic views and ideas, these should be labelled ‘Soft-Eurosceptic’, meaning the programme of AfD is critical towards, but not incompatible with the EU. Current strategies of European leaders, such as the German vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, that try to demonize parties like AfD by comparing them with Nazism, are counterproductive as it strengthens ‘the people’s’ belief that their values and wishes are ignored by the ‘political elite’.

AfD is undeniably an anti-immigration and Islam-critic party, but that does not make it racist or nativist. The party does not discriminate on race or ethnicity. Instead it differentiates on the legal status of persons (illegal refugees do not have the same rights as German citizens) and it states there is no place for radical Islamic ideologies in Germany, such as Salafism, because they are incompatible with the German constitution. These propositions and views of AfD are legitimate and intend to restore the inner security and stability of the country. AfD is, according to Mudde’s and Stanley’s requirements, not a right-populist or Hard-Eurosceptic group, but a party with a legitimate rightist-conservative ideology that uses populist strategies. Therefore, we think it is time to stop framing AfD as populist or racist and to recognise it as a legitimate party with a programme that should be taken seriously. It is essential to acknowledge and answer the contemporary worries of people, because in the USA we have already seen where continuous ignorance can lead to.

Finally, recent developments within AfD, such as the step back of Petry as campaign leader and the results of the Congress in Cologne (April 22th and 23th, 2017) may change the strategy of AfD considerably. At this event the majority of AfD-delegates did not support Frauke Petry in her pledge for Realpolitik. On the contrary. The party decided to make a new move to the right, towards national conservatism with strict limits for the inflow of refugees without family reunion. Next to that, almost 68% of the attendees chose Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel as “Spitzenduo in den Bundestagswahlkampf”, another indication for the rise of radicalism and the decline of more moderate forces within the party. Eventually, a fundamental repositioning towards ultra-right might even lead to such an adjustment of the AfD programme that our conclusions have to be reconsidered, partly or totally. Time will tell.


Hans Heijerman
Hans Heijerman (1957) is management consultant and partner at Rijnconsult and studied Contemporary History.
Niels Heijerman
Niels Heijerman (1994) is Business Analyst at Rabobank International