Ornery, elderly, white male eurosceptic professors with ample nostril hair... that's what we and others laughed the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) off for when they appeared on the political stage a year and half ago. Those cranks don't stand a chance! A flash in the pan! Single-issue euro-hating grumps. They'll melt away like snowmen in spring, we thought, once the storm of the European debt crisis finally blows over.
Oh, were we wrong! At three different regional elections over the last three weeks, the AfD has made a big leap, scoring more than 10 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. Who in their right mind would vote for these people? It turns out, people from across the board: men, women, the young, the self-employed, the unemployed. Interestingly, the AfD was less popular among the "old" i.e. over 45s than among the young.
Also interesting: the AfD has nibbled away at the voter base of most of the other parties – cashing in on anti-capitalist sentiments among the Left and SPD, anti-state sentiments amidst former FDP voters, and xenophobia on the fringe of the CDU. As Angela Merkel put it: all of the established parties need to be concerned by the rise of the AfD.
So what is this coalition of killjoys so unhappy about? In Germany everything's going pretty well, right? Unemployment is at its lowest since reunification! Large parts of the former East are flourishing. What are these people whining about?
One commentator has said the AfD is the perfect party for the neo-Nazis who were bashing foreigners in the East during the 1990s and who have since grown up and had children, meaning they're now ripe for a more respectable rightwing movement. That's one way of seeing it. I think the left-leaning pundit Jakob Augstein nailed it when he described the unifying sentiment behind the AfD as "pure Putinism" – an arch-conservative worldview that sees everything as moving too fast in the wrong direction. Europe and the banks are taking away our sovereignty and money; gays who want to marry and adopt children and their allies, the "gender-crazed" feminists, are destroying our family values; Roma and Sinti and other welfare-scamming foreigners are the "social dregs" of Germany (the very words of AfD boss Bernd Lucke). The list of enemies goes on and on: "cross-border criminals" aka Polish and Czech car thieves; mosque-building, Sharia-preaching Muslims; bankrupt southern European countries who are sucking up "our money"...
In short: we need more "Mut zu Deutschland" ("courage for Germany") as goes the party slogan. Other politicians simply don't care about Germany! Populism perfected. And situated definitely to the right of Merkels fluffy, spineless, "modern" CDU, but more presentable than the foaming-at-the-mouth pariahs of the NPD. This is the simmering hate of the Thilo Sarrazin type.
Are they dangerous? Should we worry? Or are they just a "gaga party" as some commentators have suggested? I would say Jein. While the influence of this resentful bunch has grown astoundingly fast, considering they've only been around for a year and half, they have yet to prove themselves on the national stage – and Angela Merkel's assimilation of the ideas of other parties has been masterful in the past. I doubt she will rest at night until the stray sheep of the AfD have rejoined her flock.
In a sense these people have always existed in Germany: the paranoid middle classes anxious about their status amidst globalisation, immigration, EU enlargement, economic turmoil, workplace stress etc, tend to seek easy solutions by projecting their fears upon numerous baddies. And yet: it's better to have these people and their resentment out in the open where we can see them rather than in the neo-Nazi NPD or supporting its terrorist cousins, the NSU. Politicians should be talking to the AfD, countering their positions with real arguments on talk shows and elsewhere. A refusal to do so will only strengthen the AfD's ability to paint themselves as virtuous rebels expressing the true, suppressed will of the people.