Don't write the AfD off yet

This newsletter is a 7-minute read

Once again, US pollsters failed to pick up the “shy Trump supporters” at a presidential election. Polling predicted a comfortable victory for Democrat Joe Biden. But when it came to the crunch, he only won by a whisker.

It's a phenomenon we’ve seen on this side of the Atlantic in recent years. In the UK, polling has twice failed to detect comfortable Tory victories.

In Germany, all but one of the eight polling firms underestimated the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) share of the vote at the last federal election in 2017. Most had the far-right party polling in the single digits throughout the year. They ended up with the third largest faction in the Bundestag on the back of 12.6 percent of the vote.

That wasn’t an isolated malfunction. At state elections between 2016 and 2018, pollsters consistently underpredicted their popularity. The explanation is likely similar to that in the US. A mixture of inflammatory rhetoric from AfD politicians and earning the “fascist” tag from opponents made supporting them taboo. Secretly though, a good number of voters back an agenda, which in a nutshell is Islamophobic, nationalist and climate change denying.

Over the past two years support for the AfD seems to have flatlined, or even declined slightly. Polling has done a better job of picking up this trend. At the election to Hamburg’s Bürgerschaft in February, they scraped back in after most polling gave them a relatively comfortable seven percent in the left-wing city. (Germany’s so-called fünf-prozent-Hürde means that parties need at least 5 percent of the vote to get list seats).

On the other hand, polls in the east of the country underestimated just how deep support for them was there at three state elections last autumn. (The AfD came second in each.)

That’s one reason why I’m sceptical of the current genre in German journalism that portrays the AfD as “a party in crisis.” Die Zeit’s article “Is the relationship between the AfD and the Ossis shattering?” and ARD’s “Can corona get them out of the polling slump?” are just two recent examples.

I have more than an inkling that these types of articles are journalists describing reality as they wish it were, rather than as it actually is.

First things first, the AfD’s polling figures are not at all terrible.

INSA, the only pollster to correctly predict their vote last time around, puts them at 12 percent. Other companies have them between nine and eleven points. In other words, a party which entered the Bundestag for the first time in 2017 - apparently on the single issue of the refugee crisis - are predicted to lose a small amount of their vote at a time when the news cycle is dominated by a completely different issue.

With the margin of error in polling numbers usually three percent, all we can really say is that the AfD could be in a battle with the SPD to take on the mantle of opposition to a likely CDU/Green coalition (the Social Dems are polling at ~15%). Or it could be a close race between the AfD and Die Linke for fourth.

That’s far from a disastrous result for a party set up in 2013 and which has been riven by internal division since the get go.

New parties have all had their wobbles on their way to establishing themselves in Germany. The Greens crashed out of the Bundestag in 1990 after first entering it in 1983. Die Linke (then the PDS) got over the line in 1998 but fell back out at the next election.

So, even if we trust the polling, the AfD should easily secure a second term in the Bundestag. But the reasons for people being “shy AfDler” are still there - the polls are probably underpredicting. 

The other issue which is seen as harming the party’s chances next year is an internal power struggle, which has been vicious even by the AfD’s standards. The liberal-conservative faction based in the southwest and the hard-right faction (with links to the neo-Nazi scene) in the east have been ripping chunks out of each other every since Germany’s domestic intelligence agency put leading members of the eastern faction under surveillance at the start of the year.

Unlike the west of the country, the east is still ethnically homogenous - and a lot of voters clearly want to keep things that way. For the party in the west, where ethnic diversity has been a fact of life for decades, the undisguised historical revisionism and nativism that comes from the east are a hindrance to their attempts to appeal to a broader conservative audience on more boring issues like debt-sharing in the EU.

This underlying friction has always been resolved by having a dual leadership, with one west German and one east German balancing each other at the summit. (Leading members of the party in the east are, by the way, often Wessies who’ve done a reverse Flucht.)

But the intelligence agency’s decision to put members of the eastern wing under observation at the start of the year led west German co-leader, Jörg Meuthen to try and purge the fanatics. He managed to convince the party executive to expel one of the leading radicals, Andreas Kalbitz (head of the party in Brandenburg). But the backlash was wicked. Eastern members, accused Meuthen of “trying to split and destroy the party” and tried to have hum unseated. Kalbitz still sits with the faction in the Brandenburg parliament even though he is no longer a party member.

The simmering tensions have led to the collapse of the AfD faction in two state parliaments, with representatives citing increased radicalism in their resignation letters.

This is all pretty messy, but it’s also nothing new for the AfD. The most spectacular act of sabotage came when former leader Frauke Petry used their first Bundestag press conference to quit and sit as an independent. Founder Bernd Lucke was also culled as the party moved further to the right in 2016.

But how much do voters care about these internal intrigues? Years of chaos in the White House didn’t stop Donald Trump increasing his vote count at this year’s election. 

As the conservative US commentator Megan Kelly has observed, people voted Trump in as a disrupter and he kept disrupting until the end. In other words, the assumption that people fed up with the status quo want the new “voice of the people” to act like a traditional party of power is questionable.

Surveillance by the intelligence agencies hasn’t been wholly damaging either. Even the western faction portrayed it as a politicized move - further proof that a corrupt state was out to defy the will of the people. In east Germany, where many people lived under such a state, this message has obvious appeal.

The AfD aren’t stupid. They’ve studied how Trump craftily used the establishment’s loathing for him to create a siege mentality. Unashamed to throw around phrases like ‘“the  Merkel dictatorship”, they stoke distrust in the media, the political classes and academia.

While it goes without saying that words like Lügenpresse are crude and conspiratorial, the German press, just like their peers in the US, struggle to maintain their Sachlichkeit on the AfD.

And the parallels don’t stop there. Anyone who thinks people only vote for the AfD due to xenophobic policies is missing at least half of the issue. Many people feel hemmed in by a taboo culture. Germans were told in 2015 that discussing a rise in crime due to the refugee crisis was off limits. When 2016 started with mass sexual assaults at New Year’s parties and continued, as one spy put it, as “a never ending series of attempted terror attacks,” people felt like they could no longer speak their minds.

The new taboo is the government’s corona strategy. While some experts are treated by the media as if a higher power is speaking through them, others are banished from the airwaves (even while their books sell like hot cakes). Questioning the government at a time of crisis is in bad taste - ignorant even.

All the while, the room in the middle for fuzzy scepticism (where most of us should be on the coronavirus) is shrinking. There is strong support for lockdowns, but a hardcore of 20 percent of the population strongly rejects the November shutdown. One only need look at the violent scenes in Leipzig last weekend to see that this issue provokes at least as much emotion as the refugee crisis.

The AfD have realised there is political hay to be made here. They might not be the only party to reject lockdowns (the FDP do too), but they have mastered the art of shaking a fist at the “dictatorial” establishment. If you think that's a transparent trick, just look at the USA.


Like what you’re reading? German current affairs and news straight to your inbox three times a week. Subscribe here to get the Hochhaus newsletter:

Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.