Persecution narrative pays off for Germany’s AfD

Negative headlines may have helped the far-right party solidify its hardcore voter base


If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is on a roll.

Since the start of last week, it has been on German newspaper front pages more often than not and, last Wednesday, on Berlin’s popular Inforadio station, three out of six news items were AfD-related.

Political analysts say the only thing that can halt big wins for the party in June’s local and European Parliament elections, and three eastern state elections in September, is if long-simmering internal AfD feuds see it collapse from within.

“The AfD is clearly a Teflon party where nothing sticks and the other parties have no effective concept against it,” said Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist at the University of Münster.

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That western city has just hosted the most high-profile legal showdown between the AfD and the German state: an appeal by the party against its official designation as a suspected extremist party by the domestic intelligence service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV).

Judges in Münster dismissed the appeal, seeing “sufficient factual evidence that the AfD is pursuing efforts that are directed against the human dignity of certain groups of people and against the principle of democracy”. This classification means the party is subjected to “enhanced monitoring”, a BfV euphemism for far-reaching surveillance measures.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed the ruling as proof that Germany’s “resilient democracy” has the tools it needs to tackle “threats from within”.

At the same time, the Scholz government remains wary of triggering procedures to ban the AfD, a complicated and drawn-out process. Meanwhile, the AfD framed itself after the court’s ruling as the victim of a “politically motivated” co-operation between the justice system and political rivals.

“You only have to look at the timing, we find ourselves in the middle of election campaigns,” said Tino Chrupalla, AfD co-leader.

He didn’t say how AfD election hopes are complicated still further by its weakness for colourful characters. Head of the list is Björn Höcke, party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, who has been handed a €13,000 fine for his campaign rally slogan “Alles für Deutschland” – everything for Germany.

Höcke, a retired history teacher, insisted he didn’t know the term was outlawed because of its Nazi-era origins.

In his ruling, Judge Jan Stengel depicted the use of the slogan as clear dog whistle politics: “This court has to listen to everything but it doesn’t have to believe everything. You are an eloquent, intelligent man who knows what he is saying.”

In his final remarks to the court, Höcke said: “I feel politically persecuted.”

For one leading German sociologist, Höcke’s defence resembled a “didactic Shakespearean play… about a person facing down challenges from a hostile world”.

Just as dramatic for Höcke are home-grown challenges, with a damaging split looming in his Thuringia AfD. Local election AfD candidates have attacked Höcke, their leader, as a “narcissist who needs to be thrown out of the party” for backing alternative candidates to the AfD list.

Rows have overshadowed, too, the AfD’s lead candidates in the June European elections: one is accused of taking bribes from Russia and had his parliamentary immunity lifted on Thursday; the other, the party’s leading MEP in Brussels, may have taken Russian money and employed a Chinese spy.

These rows, and revelations of extremist “remigration” policies, have seen AfD support slide from highs of 23 per cent in January to 15-17 per cent support now. That is still higher than its 10 per cent support in 2021′s federal election. Even though it is losing disillusioned floating voters – particularly in eastern Germany – they are not returning to Germany’s mainstream parties.

Instead, polls indicate a clear shift of 5-7 per cent to the new hard-left BSW alliance lead by ex-Link leader Sahra Wagenknecht, which mixes nativist immigration narratives with pro-Russian framing of the war in Ukraine.

The negative headlines, argues political scientist Werner Patzelt, have helped the AfD double down on the persecution narrative and solidify its hardcore voter base.

And a year before Germany enters federal election mode, the far-right AfD remains in second place – still ahead of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Olaf Scholz.

“The AfD is nothing more than an alarm signal,” said Prof Patzelt of Dresden University to Welt TV. “Many people in Germany feel not just abandoned by their politicians but also treated arrogantly.”

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