The right-wing populist party AfD sought to paper over its deep split between the moderate and extremist wings for the campaign. Now that the party won fewer votes than expected, that divide is once again front and center.
It’s four weeks ago and Tino Chrupalla is standing onstage in the town of Oberursel in Hesse. It is where the radical right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) got its start eight years ago, and the AfD chief is in a confident mood, saying that he wants to be part of a government. That, he says, is his “mission in battle.” First, he says, Saxony will be “flipped.” Chrupalla gets louder: “The political shift will take place in Saxony first! I promise you that!” The packed auditorium cheers.
First Saxony and then all of Germany? The first part of that mission seems to have gone according to plan. The party won 24.6 percent of the vote in Saxony, landing it well ahead of all other party’s in the eastern German state. But the picture is quite a bit different on the national level. There, the AfD only barely managed to creep into the double digits, managing 10.3 percent of the vote.
The party was unable to improve on its 2017 result, when it sent deputies to the federal parliament for the first time, with 12.6 percent of total votes. And its result may still be adjusted downward. Most of the votes still to be counted are mail-in ballots, which the AfD urged their supporters to shun, given their alleged vulnerabilities.
Either way, the AfD has clearly fallen short of its target. Chrupalla, who was also the party’s leading candidate, nevertheless tried to project confidence onstage at the AfD’s election party in Berlin on Sunday evening, speaking of a “strong result” and saying he was proud of what the party had achieved. “We came to stay, and we proved that today,” he said, adding that the core of the party had been strengthened. Fellow senior AfD member Alice Weidel went on German public broadcaster ARD to complain that there had been “clear competition distortions” in the campaign. The media, she claimed, had “pushed up the Greens.”
The solution is clear: Instead of talking about the party’s poor outcome, speakers at the election party all claimed that the AfD had established itself. And that others were to blame for the AfD’s losses. The goal going into the campaign, though, it should be remembered, had been an entirely different one. The party had hoped to consolidate its position in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and grow stronger. Or, as then party co-leader Alexander Gauland put it on the evening of the election four years ago: “We will hunt you down, we will hunt you, Ms. Merkel, or whoever, and we will win back our country and our people.”
So much for that aspiration. The AfD finds itself standing on the political sidelines, with none of the other parties interested in including them in a coalition of any kind. In the last four years, it has moved even further to the right and can no longer hope to collect protest votes. It has maximized its core voter potential. And soon, the party will come under observation by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency due to its extremist tendencies.
And this despite the party’s attempt to tone things down in this election season. The slogan frequently seen on AfD posters was: “Germany. But normal.” Rather anodyne. The two lead candidates, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, also tried to strike a different tone. But it didn’t work.
Party head Jörg Meuthen will now have his hands full if he wants to hang on to his leadership position and prevail in the internal power struggle that is already emerging. For years, there has been a battle between the extremist wing of the party surrounding Björn Höcke in Thuringen and the merely far-right wing behind Meuthen. This election result will do nothing to calm those waters.
Indeed, the fight broke out into the open on Sunday evening on social media. “Without Meuthen, we would have had 15 percent,” wrote one AfD supporter. Only to be countered by another: “Without Höcke and his ilk it would have been 18-20%.” Others, as has become standard for right wing populist parties around the world, contented themselves with complaining of election fraud.
Indeed, the AfD took a page out of the Republican handbook and spent weeks preparing its voters for potential election fraud. It even produced a video claiming that “election fraud is frequent when no one is looking,” and showing an election helper counting an AfD mail-in ballot for the Greens.
Still, that’s not going to help when it comes to the internal power struggle. And Meuthen seemed eager to stake out his position early. On Sunday evening, he admitted that the result had been so-so, but said it was important to carefully analyze why the AfD hadn’t managed to attract more voters. On Monday, he repeated the same message, demanding an “internal party analysis” of the results, saying that while the party’s lead candidates had struck a note with core voters, they had failed to win over new sectors of the electorate. He also criticized the plank in the platform demanding that Germany leave the EU, arguing that it hadn’t gone over well in the campaign.
Meuthen’s criticism hasn’t sat well with the more extreme party members surrounding Chrupalla and Weidel. They say that the party ran the campaign that Meuthen wanted and it didn’t work. On Monday, Weidel said she “wouldn’t let anybody denigrate the election results,” while Chrupalla said that even if he wasn’t “one-hundred percent satisfied,” it was a “stable result.”
The party has a conference scheduled for mid-December, at which the AfD will choose its new leaders. It remains to be seen if Meuthen will seek another term at the top. And his comments on Monday gave little indication as to his intentions. “We will have to see in what direction this party is moving,” he said. “Will we find a common denominator or will we not?”
Weidel’s comments, meanwhile, were perhaps a bit more revealing. “Meuthen is quite a character,” she said on Monday. “I always enjoyed working together with him.” It almost sounded like he was already history.
With reporting by Maik Baumgärtner, Ann-Katrin Müller and Sven Röbel