This year’s election is set to go down in history as the moment Germany’s most successful rightwing nationalist party since the second world war stormed into parliament.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 13 per cent of the vote and roughly 88 seats, making it the third-biggest party in the Bundestag.
It is an extraordinary feat for a fiercely anti-immigration, anti-Islam organisation that was formed only four years ago and was long dismissed as a fringe phenomenon. It would also be the first time such a hard-right party has sat in the German parliament in more than 50 years.
As the first results were announced, a deafening cheer went up from AfD supporters gathered at a club in central Berlin. A cascade of blue and white balloons fell from the ceiling and the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of the German national anthem.
“We are in the German Bundestag and we will change this country,” said Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s top two candidates in the election. “We will make sure that what the people say on the streets finally plays a role in parliament.”
Mr Gauland said the party would “chase [Angela] Merkel” and “take back our country”.
“From now there is an opposition party in the Bundestag again,” he said.
Alice Weidel, the AfD’s other leading candidate, said the first thing the party would do would be to initiate a parliamentary investigation into “all the breaches of the law” committed by “that lady”, Angela Merkel.
The AfD’s success has come as a shock to moderates who thought the horrors of Germany’s Nazi past had immunised the country to the appeal of hard-right nationalism. They are now trying frantically to assess how the party’s breakthrough will affect the country’s political culture.
This month, Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister, admitted to a certain sadness in the last session of the outgoing parliament — “because I knew it was highly likely that when I come back to the Bundestag there will be real Nazis standing at the podium for the first time since 1945”.
The initial signs are that this year’s election could be a watershed moment, ending old ways of doing things in the Bundestag. The AfD, which revels in breaking taboos and attacking the “cartel” politics of the “old parties”, will inject more conflict into a system that has for decades leaned towards consensus and compromise.
Germans have had a foretaste during the election campaign, in which AfD supporters have routinely drowned out Ms Merkel’s stump speeches with choruses of whistles and boos and lambasted the chancellor as a “liar”, “traitor” and “oath-breaker”.
The party’s entry into parliament will “lead to a polarisation of political debate”, says Alexander Hensel of the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research, who has studied the AfD’s performance in Germany’s regional legislatures.
“You will see a mixture of sharp critiques of the established ‘cartel’ parties, as well as personal attacks on individual politicians and deliberate provocations to raise the party’s profile.”
Mr Gauland says the party will revive a parliamentary system that has fallen into torpor under Ms Merkel. “Can you name me one interesting debate we had over the Greek bailout? The NSA espionage affair? The Russia sanctions?,” Mr Gauland said last week. “We will try to revive a culture of debate and provide a real alternative to the mushy consensus we have now.”
There are fears the AfD could introduce a shrilly radical tone not seen in Germany’s national parliament since the 1930s. The party’s list of Bundestag candidates includes hard-right ideologues, conspiracy theorists and politicians with close ties to extremist organisations ranging from radical Burschenschaften, or student leagues, to neo-Nazi groups.
One of its top candidates is Jens Maier, a judge who has criticised Germany’s “cult of shame” over the war. Another, Wilhelm von Gottberg, has described the Holocaust as a “myth, a dogma that is protected from all free historical research”. Petr Bystron has been on German domestic intelligence’s watchlist since March because of his support for the extreme rightwing Identitarian Movement.
The list also includes figures such as Sebastian Münzenmaier, who is on trial on charges of grievous bodily harm and attempted robbery over an alleged attack on a group of FSV Mainz 05 football fans in 2012.
A study published last month by the Duisburg Institute of Speech and Social Research found that of the 235 candidates put up by the AfD, 98 are extreme rightwingers and only 40 are from the moderate wing of the party. (The study said 97 of the candidates kept such a low profile that it was hard to tell where they stood politically).
The AfD was not always so extreme. It began life in 2013 as a Eurosceptic “professors’ party” opposed to the Greek bailouts. But it shifted sharply to the right after an internal coup in 2015 that left Frauke Petry in charge. She turned it into Germany’s leading critic of Ms Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, a shift that boosted its rating in opinion polls as public misgivings about the refugee influx grew. By this summer it had gained representation in 13 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments.
Political scientists say Mr Gabriel’s designation of the AfD as a bunch of Nazis was wrong. Michael Wolffsohn, the German-Israeli historian, says the AfD is typical of the new crop of European rightwing parties that have emerged as “reactions to new problems which haven’t been dealt with by the traditional parties” — such as the abuse of the right to asylum and the rise of Islamist terrorism.
Jürgen Falter, politics professor at Mainz university, says the AfD’s entry into the Bundestag should not be overdramatised: to him it puts Germany on a par with other EU countries where rightwing parties have long been part of the political landscape.
“[The AfD’s success] is not a cause for concern but a normalisation of German politics after our history,” he adds.
Additional reporting by Stefan Wagstyl
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