Open Europe Blog

Beatrix says change direction – but where to?

When the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland was first founded, it was derided as a fringe party for professors obsessed with ordoliberalism that would struggle to make a lasting impact on the German political scene.

However, the party got within 0.3% of the vote of winning seats in the Bundestag in September and is polling at around 6%-7% ahead of the European elections, meaning it looks certain to win seats in Brussels/Strasbourg. Yet the party’s relatively strong showing in the polls masks serious internal divides along personnel and policy lines.

At the start of the year, it was being reported that some founding members were leaving in disillusionment in the belief that the party was abandoning its liberal roots and embarking on a sharply ‘rightward’ trajectory, which was manifested by the embracing of traditional Christian moral values and taking a tough line on immigration – AfD were notably the only mainstream German party to praise the results of the Swiss referendum on curbing free movement.

Initially, it seemed that this shift to the ‘right’ was limited to social policy, with AfD still maintaining its liberalism on economic policy; Hans-Olaf Henkel – the former head of the Federation of German Industries – described it as “Germany’s last liberal party”. However, this also seems to have been consigned to the past following the party’s convention over the weekend at which it voted on its manifesto for the European elections.

Crucially, the party’s grassroots voted to reject the EU-US free trade deal (TTIP) currently under negotiation despite strong support from the leadership including party leader Bernd Lucke, who argued that it was a “positive, constructive objective which is very much in Germany’s interest”. Beatrix von Storch (pictured), an MEP candidate and high profile AfD activist – who for many epitomises the party’s recent lurch towards conservatism – argued that the agreement “is not fair and will burden our country”.

Interestingly, when it came to the recent events in the Crimea, the party’s deputy federal spokesperson criticised the independence referendum but also called for greater “understanding” for Moscow and described the interim Ukrainian government as “not democratically legitimate”. A motion was passed (to thundering applause according to FAZ) rejecting German taxpayer assistance for Ukraine and economic sanctions on Russia.

Such sentiments – scepticism of free trade deals (or ‘directed trade’ as libertarians would say) and emphasises on isolationism in world affairs, puts the AfD closer to either the American “Old Right” (which Europeans tend not to even remotely understand) or the European Socialist Left.

So what does all this mean? Well it seems that AfD are at risk of becoming a catch-all populist party with strongly ideologically contradictory factions rather than one which can be easily placed on the traditional ‘left/right’ axis. This applies to a number of other European parties which combine elements of both including the National Front, PVV, the (True) Finns party and UKIP (although UKIP economic policy is more liberal than the others’). It also shows that those Tories keen for AfD to join the ECR group in the European Parliament may wish to pause for thought.

To some extent this is not surprising given that even in its early stages the party paradoxically drew disproportionate support from former FDP and Die Linke voters. We also noted after the elections that the party had done particularly well in Eastern Germany, which tends to vote more heavily for left-wing parties than West Germany. In the East, AfD has also struggled to contain creeping take-over attempts by more nationalist elements.

The question for the party is where does it go from here: does it establish itself as a permanent protest party borrowing ideas and policies from the political smorgasbord as it sees fit  – there is clearly a gap in the market – or does it try to remain a genuine economically liberal party angling for a spot in the mainstream?

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