BERLIN (AFP) — Germany’s AfD began life as an anti-euro party, but it has morphed into a right-wing populist outfit suggesting that police should be allowed to shoot migrants seeking to enter the country.
Despite the uproar over chairwoman Frauke Petry’s comments over the weekend, the reality is that the party is enjoying its biggest support since its birth, scoring a record 12 percent on a public opinion poll published Sunday by the tabloid-style Bild newspaper.
Riding on a rising wave of mistrust over the 1.1 million asylum seekers who arrived in Germany in 2015, Alternative for Germany (AfD) appears to have struck a chord with some through its anti-migrant calls, posing a real threat to centrist parties.
The AfD is now clearly a “party of the radical right,” Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
Given its Nazi past, Germany has over the decades since the end of the war kept far-right parties to the fringes of politics.
The AfD’s ability to anchor itself as a radical party is therefore “something new”, Werner Patzelt, political science expert at the Technical University of Dresden, told AFP.
After all, the party’s members have repeatedly raised eyebrows over what critics say is inflammatory speech.
Take the comments of member Bjoern Hoecke in early December, when he said that the “reproductive behavior of Africans” could be a threat for Germany.
Most recently, party leader Petry herself said in comments carried by the Mannheimer Morgen regional daily on Saturday: “We need efficient controls to prevent so many unregistered asylum seekers from continuing to enter via Austria.”
She added: “No policeman wants to fire on a refugee and I don’t want that either. But as a last resort there should be recourse to firearms.”
Petry’s comments earned a swift rebuke from political heavyweights including Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who said Germany’s domestic security watchdog should keep an eye on the AfD.
Even Bernd Luecke, the former leader of the party himself, has said that “the way the question of refugees is being dealt with by the AfD is inhumane and unbearable”.
But far from alienating voters, these provocative comments have had the opposite effect, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s Heribert Prantl wrote in an editorial.
In turn, that has pushed the AfD to “become even more virulent”.
In fact, it was the ouster of Luecke at a party congress in July last year that saw the AfD set itself firmly on the right-wing populist path.
This “congress marked the end of the internal struggle on the choice of its orientation in the German political landscape,” Patzelt said.
Given its initial anti-euro platform, the party could have positioned itself as a new liberal party rivaling the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), said Patzelt, but its agenda had finally been hijacked by its right-leaning members.
Crucially, that shift coincided with the beginning of a record influx of asylum seekers to Germany over the summer.
Initially, the AfD’s opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door stance to war refugees was drowned out as public opinion was firmly on the side of giving new arrivals a warm welcome.
But as asylum seekers have continued to arrive in their thousands daily, disgruntlement and doubts have grown over Germany’s ability to take in so many.
AfD’s popularity also began to climb.
From four percent in September, backing rose to six percent in October, and 10 percent in December, according to the country’s main political survey DeutschlandTrend.
On Sunday, another poll published by Bild am Sonntag said AfD had now a record score of 12 percent.
Although that is still far behind Merkel’s conservative alliance with 34 percent, and the Social Democratic Party’s 24 percent, it means AfD has become the third political force in the country.
With its clear positioning to the right of Merkel’s conservative alliance, the AfD poses a particular threat to the alliance’s Bavarian party the CSU, which once declared that there is “no democratically legitimate party to its right” in Germany.
The AfD, which now has seats in five regional parliaments, is eyeing its first seats in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in polls on March 13.