Germany’s far-right a major loser from COVID-19, so far

People wearing face masks hold signs and copies of the German constitution as they participate in a protest by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against the government's restrictions following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Editor's note:

While the far-right Alternative for Germany has seemed paralyzed in responding to COVID-19, the fight for German democracy is not over, especially in light of the medical, social, and economic crises unleashed by COVID-19, which present opportunities to further divide German politics, argues Constanze Stelzenmüller. This post originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Might Germany’s most prominent COVID-19 victim be its hard-right party, the Alternative for Germany? Having roared to prominence with a vicious xenophobic campaign during the migration crisis of 2015, the AfD is having a remarkably bad pandemic.

It was only four months ago that Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned as head of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), and thus as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir presumptive in the 2021 elections.

That was because a state branch of her party had let itself be inveigled into electing an unknown politician as the state’s premier with AfD support. The deeply divided CDU, which with its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union has long commanded more than 40 percent of the popular vote, appeared to be dwindling into insignificance, polling just 26 percent.

At the same time, the AfD, founded in 2013 by a handful of euroskeptic academics, had been surging, mutating, and radicalizing. It entered the federal legislature in 2017, winning 12.6 percent of the vote, and became the largest opposition party. In several eastern states, it was the second-strongest or even strongest political force.

Moderates fled the AfD as its extremist “Wing” faction gained ascendance. Its supporters — among them, rightwing radical groups — rampaged on social media and the streets. Local officials were terrorized, Jewish cemeteries and a synagogue attacked. In June 2019, regional CDU politician Walter Lübcke was murdered by an alleged neo-Nazi.

Still, the AfD’s only path to power through Germany’s constitutional order (which its party programme decries as “illegitimate”) lay in capturing or co-opting the center-right. With Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation, it seemed as though the AfD had achieved a halfway victory: not as kingmaker, but as destroyer of a chancellor-in-waiting. Even Merkel seemed to wobble.

Today, Merkel’s popularity is as high as it has ever been in her 15-year tenure. The CDU has shot back up to 40 percent in the polls and three-quarters of Germans approve of the work of her grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Meanwhile, the AfD’s rating has plummeted to eight percent, and its leaders are at each other’s throats.

Much of this is because the AfD appears paralyzed by the pandemic, which has brought out the scientist chancellor’s strengths: an evidence-based and consensus-oriented leadership style, which treats citizens as responsible adults. Facing the COVID-19 crisis, her coalition also stopped bickering and pulled together several “bazooka” stimulus packages, both for the nation and for Europe.

After a decade of denial about the growth of the extreme right, German authorities have also begun to crack down on the AfD’s hard-right support networks. Attempting to ward off pressure, AfD chieftains threw out its leading rightwinger, a former paratrooper, and the Wing dissolved itself.

Still, the fight for German democracy is by no means won. In the 1960s and 1990s, government action and citizen opposition routed hard-right parties. But the extreme right, for all its vicious infighting, has been meticulously preparing the battleground ever since. The AfD deploys an endless barrage of parliamentary inquiries and lawsuits in a war of attrition against ministries and courts. Its strident populism has also changed the scope of acceptable political discourse.

Two fundamental questions remain unresolved: whether the AfD will attempt to march on power via the streets or via institutions, and whether Germany’s mainstream political parties will muster the determination to protect democracy against its enemy. Only one thing is certain. The medical, economic, social, and institutional crisis unleashed by coronavirus has only just begun. That is an opportunity for both sides.