Germany’s far right is savouring a comeback and mainstream parties are blaming each other.
The anti-immigrant, climate-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) is scoring its highest poll ratings in years, overtaking the Greens and moving within sight of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.
After a two-year losing streak in regional elections, the AfD is back on the march in places well outside its usual ex-East German heartland.
Even when internal disarray kept the AfD off the ballot in a recent election in Bremen, support flowed to a small right-wing outfit called Citizens in Rage that more than quadrupled its vote share.
Analysts say the AfD, which was founded 10 years ago, is cashing in on public discontent about energy prices, immigration and the direction of Mr Scholz’s government.
Jakob Guhl, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who monitors far-right content, told The National that some of the AfD’s most popular online traffic involved slating the Greens in Mr Scholz’s coalition.
The government has been plagued by infighting over Economy Minister Robert Habeck’s plans to phase out gas boilers, with his Green-controlled ministry also jolted by a nepotism scandal.
The far right portrays the Greens as “waging a war against simple working-class people who are not urban liberal elite and who need their cars to get to work”, Mr Guhl said.
“The AfD is able to create this narrative around elite metropolitan liberals ruling against the interests of regular people by recklessly supporting Ukraine, by imposing sanctions that damage the German economy, by pursuing pie-in-the-sky environmentalist programmes.”
The party's resurgence comes despite repeated warnings from ministers about the threat of right-wing radicalism, not least after prosecutors uncovered two alleged armed coup plots to overthrow Germany's post-war democracy.
Parts of the AfD are under surveillance by intelligence services, who say the party’s youth wing is at odds with Germany’s constitutional order. Party leaders see such interventions as politically motivated.
When one poll showed the AfD had 17 per cent of the vote nationwide, party co-leader Tino Chrupalla boasted that its message “is being well received by the public … no campaign against us can change that”.
“We want security for Germany by protecting our borders, and prosperity through free and peaceful trade,” he said.
Running on slogans such as “our country first”, the AfD has questioned Berlin’s support for Ukraine, opposed cutting energy ties with Russia and tapped into concerns about the number of asylum seekers in Germany.
Mr Scholz’s government “has not succeeded in containing social anxiety” around its energy policies, said Johannes Hillje, a political consultant who has run campaigns for environmentalist candidates.
Christina Stumpp, the deputy general secretary of Germany’s main opposition party, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), said the AfD’s rise “is directly connected” to the performance of Mr Scholz’s coalition.
“Green ideology, wokeness, dismissing the refugee crisis and Habeck’s heating whammy are a stimulus package for the political extremes,” Ms Stumpp said.
Although the CDU leads in the polls, voters have shown little warmth for its millionaire leader Friedrich Merz, and the AfD portrays the opposition as “riding the same ideological climate train” as the government.
The AfD “is seen as the party that’s most antagonistic to the Greens”.
“People often vote against the parties they hate rather than for the parties they like,” said Mr Guhl.
Others say the centre right is to blame for echoing anti-migrant rhetoric that plays into the AfD’s hands.
Founded in 2013 as a “party of professors” disgruntled by the euro crisis, the AfD was reborn after the Syrian refugee crisis two years later as a right-wing populist force spreading anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In 2017, it surged into Germany’s parliament at a general election, coming in third, with the highest vote share (12.6 per cent) for any far-right party since the Second World War.
Although mainstream parties refuse to co-operate with the AfD, its successes at the regional level have forced its rivals to form unwieldy coalitions to keep the far right out of power in state parliaments.
One of its more moderate figures, former AfD leader Joerg Meuthen, quit the party last year after saying it had taken on “clear totalitarian echoes”.
Memories of the country's Nazi past make far-right rhetoric a particularly sensitive subject in Germany, and the AfD has regularly caused unease by skirting around the edge of post-1945 taboos.
The party had a run of electoral setbacks in 2020 and 2021, with its lockdown-sceptic stance failing to resonate widely even as coronavirus-related protests helped to stimulate far-right conspiracy theorists.
The protests are blamed for fuelling the rise of the Reichsbuerger (Citizens of the Reich) movement, which rejects the legitimacy of the post-war German state and was linked to the alleged armed plots.
One of the suspected plotters arrested in December was a former AfD member of parliament, Birgit Malsack-Winkelmann, whose alleged involvement concerns about security in parliament.
The AfD’s anti-green rhetoric sometimes veers into conspiracy theories that suggest climate policies are the work of bogeymen such as US investors or big businesses, said Mr Guhl.
Despite its fringe elements, another recent poll finding is that the share of those who could never imagine themselves voting for the AfD has fallen to 57 per cent, from 70 per cent immediately after the last election.
Mr Hillje said in a social media post that signs of the AfD’s “normalisation in society” should be treated as a concern.
He sends an ominous warning: the AfD should not be dismissed as a protest vote but treated with vigilance as it sets its sights on a dam breach when three eastern states go to the polls next year.