An election campaign event by Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party in Cottbus Image Credit: Reuters

In just under four months’ time, voters in two of Germany’s largest states will head to the polls in regional elections to elect new parliaments in Bavaria and Hesse. And as things stand right now, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is set to make significant inroads giving it a substantial presence in both states.

More alarmingly for politicians across the rest of the political spectrum, as things stand now, almost one voter in five will place their ‘X’ behind AfD candidates.

For many Germans, still morally conflicted by Germany’s complex and tragic history with the far right — Adolf Hilter became chancellor 90 years ago and the destruction, violence and mass murders spurred by his actions remain a deep psychological scar on the nation and much of Europe — the prospect of AfD controlling parliaments for the large cities of Munich and Frankfurt is painful indeed.

But over the past decade, and particularly with then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors in 2015 to more than million refugees fleeing the chaos and civil war in Syria and beyond, the fortunes of forces on the right and the AfD has continued to rise.

Whereas once the party was viewed as a temporary and reactionary movement focused on anti-immigrant sentiments, now their alarming rise is viewed with a far more complex and somewhat complicated political ideology.

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Voters turning to AfD

Anti-immigrant sentiments remain central tenets of the AfD manifesto. But the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine, rising inflation, an economy still in recovery mode from the global hibernation brought about by the pandemic, a rejection of liberal globalisation and free trade values, and a rejection too of the public health restrictions and vaccination programmes introduced by governments in Germany and across Europe in general, have all led to more voters turning to the AfD.

It’s not just right-wing ideology that appeals, but also an anti-establishment outlook that rejects the conventional policies of both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats who have been central in some shape or form to every federal government in Germany since the end of the Second World War.

There has always been an element of anti-establishment sentiment in German political discourse — the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists were perhaps its most violent exponents — at a time when the nation itself was divided between East and West.

While the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats vied for and ruled the divided and then united Germany for decades, the opposition Greens were seen as an anti-established voice, a party that began on the fringe in voicing concerns over the environment and the damage that Germany’s heavy industrialisation and carbon- and nuclear-powered economies were inflicting on people and places.

But the Greens now are part of the establishment, coalition partners at the heart of the German Government, shaping policy and influencing the nations shift away from that carbon- and nuclear-fuelled economy that powered post-War Germany into the strongest economy in Europe.

Four months before those pivotal polls in Hesse and Bavaria, the AfD is polling just under 20 per cent nationwide and certainly well on track to overcome a constitution threshold that determines that parties must have at least 5 per cent support before being able to take seats in a federal or state parliament. It was a clause that was designed to exclude extremist parties. Trouble is, the AfD and its right-wing ideology now looks to be becoming mainstream for almost one-in-five German voters.

Look at the growing support through another metric and its recent surge is all the more remarkable: The AfD is the second-most popular party in Germany right now, second only to the Social Democrats led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Since those federal elections for the Bundestag in September 2021 that brought Scholz to power, the AfD has doubled its support nationally, up from 10.3 per cent to its current levels.

So why the mercurial rise since then? For starters, its core anti-immigrant message remains credible to many Germans. Indeed, similar sentiments are being expressed across much of Europe, with the right securing gains in parliamentary elections in Sweden, France, Norway, Denmark, the Netherland, or with traditional parties in the right adopting more extreme or populist views to tap into the shift rightward.

Rise of the rightwing

Since the conflict began in Ukraine 15 months ago, European consumers have borne the brunt of higher prices to heat their homes and fuel their cars, put food on their table and make their wage cheques stretch further with higher outlays and salaries failing to keep pace.

If that’s not bad enough, consider that Germany has contributed almost €6 billion direct funding and almost a similar sum in military hardware to Ukraine. Whereas the federal government wants to keep supporting Kiev with arms and aid, AfD is calling for negotiations to end the conflict. The logical deduction from that would suggest that the longer the conflict in Ukraine keeps going, the more popular will the AfD’s position become.

But above all, the far-right populist party has positioned itself as an aggressive opponent of the government’s energy and climate policy — shaped now from within by the Greens who had long shouted about it from outside the centre of power.

The strategy appears to have reaped rewards in recent months. Shifting to carbon neutral is expensive, with the costs inevitably being passed on to consumers either through green taxes or higher prices by companies that develop or switch to the greener way of turning profits.

The AfD’s rejection of climate protection measures also embraces climate doubters who view science with scepticism and abhor being told to become green, and see climate change as a natural phenomenon in the Earth’s long-term cycle.

The AfD’s outlook is simple: Yes to fossil fuels; yes to nuclear power; no to wind power; no to wind power, and no to giving up on proven technologies and industries that made Germany great again after the Second World War.

Even when it comes to dealing with refugees, there’s a base logic from the AfD that Germans in economic pain can relate to: Those people are taking our jobs.