epa06212181 Alice Weidel (L) and Alexander Gauland (R), co-top candidates for the general elections of the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), attend a press conference in Berlin, Germany, 18 September 2017. The AfD is supposed to talk during the press conference about 'islamic immigration' and criminality. General elections are scheduled to be held on 24 September 2017. EPA/CARSTEN KOALL
Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland: the unlikely pairing steering AfD towards the Bundestag © EPA

They are the oddest couple in Germany politics. One is a 38-year-old lesbian management consultant, the other a tweed-wearing German nationalist twice her age.

But the double act of Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland is one of the big success stories of Germany’s 2017 election. They are the two top candidates of Alternative for Germany, a rightwing party that, when polls close on Sunday, could emerge as the biggest opposition force in the German Bundestag.

The media scrum at their most recent press conference in Berlin on Monday reflected the massive national attention the two are now garnering. Reporters struggled to glimpse the two of them through a dense phalanx of photographers and television cameramen. It felt more like Oscars night than a Berlin policy launch.

“Germany has become a safe haven for criminals and terrorists from all over the world,” Ms Weidel said, her voice barely audible above the clicks of camera shutters.

“Islam does not belong to Germany,” a sombre Mr Gauland added.

The AfD is riding high. While Germany’s main parties — Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the left-of-centre Social Democrats — have fallen back slightly in recent polls, the AfD has ticked upwards. According to YouGov, the party that foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel says is full of “genuine Nazis” is on its way to becoming the third-strongest force in the Bundestag behind the CDU/CSU and SPD, with 12 per cent of the vote and 85 parliamentary seats.

And if Ms Merkel’s bloc and the SPD opt to continue their grand coalition after Sunday’s election, the AfD will become the largest opposition group in parliament. That would entitle it to chair the influential budget committee and open the general debate during budget discussions, among other perks.

Gaining entry into the inner sanctum of German democracy will be an extraordinary achievement for a party that was created just four years ago in protest at the eurozone bailout of Greece.

12%-13.5%

Proportion of the vote polls suggest AfD might win on Sunday

By 2015, as the eurozone debt crisis eased, it was a busted flush. But Ms Merkel’s decision later that year to let in more than 1m refugees gave it a new lease of life. With its demands to curb asylum rights and close Germany’s borders, and its fiercely anti-Islamic rhetoric, it surged in the polls and now has seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments.

Winning representation in the Bundestag would mark a new phase in a long march from the fringes of German politics to the heart of power in Berlin. More broadly it would revive the spirits of European populist movements damped by Marine Le Pen’s defeat to Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election this year, and Geert Wilders’ disappointing 13 per cent score in the Dutch poll in March.

Some experts now wonder whether the AfD could do even better than opinion surveys suggest.

Helmut Jung, consultant with the GMS polling agency, refers to the “non-disclosure quotient” among rightwing voters, who tend to lie to pollsters about their political preferences. Such behaviour, he says, has increased in recent months as the attacks on the AfD by mainstream politicians such as Mr Gabriel intensify.

“The more the party is stigmatised as extreme rightwing, the more reluctant conservative voters are to admit that they support it,” Mr Jung said. “Instead they tell pollsters that they don’t plan to vote at all — or that they’ll vote for some other party.”

As a result, the AfD vote is one of the big wild cards of this election. Bild Zeitung reported on Tuesday that, based on surveys of all those who “could imagine” voting AfD, the party could win as much as 13.5 per cent of the vote. Bild said 39 per cent of Germans think the party will do better than polls suggest.

Pollsters have a history of underestimating AfD support. “Before regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt last year, they were pegged at 18 per cent,” said Richard Hilmer, head of policy matters, a political consultancy. “In the end they got 24 per cent — their best ever result.”

​Activity on social media might be a better predictor of the AfD’s strength than conventional surveys, said Jost Listemann, political lecturer at the HMKW University in Berlin. “Pollsters should be looking at things like how many new followers a politician has and how many times their posts are shared or liked on Facebook.”

The party has a massive presence on social media, with 362,000 Facebook followers, compared with the SPD’s 169,000 and CDU’s 154,000. Meanwhile, a study released this week found that the AfD drives more Twitter traffic than any other German party, and more even than non-partisan discussion of the election itself.

The AfD’s popularity has grown despite a string of scandals that some thought might scupper its electoral chances. An email by Ms Weidel, published in German media this month, had echoes of the extremist Reichsbürger movement. In it, she described the government as “pigs” who were “nothing other than the puppets of the victorious powers of the second world war and have the task of keeping the German people down”. Initially dismissed as a fake by the AfD, Ms Weidel’s lawyer has since backed away from the denial.

Mr Gauland, too, has had his share of controversies. This month, he said Germans had the right “to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars” — an assertion which broke a whole host of taboos in German politics.

On Monday, he dismissed the brouhaha around his comments, focusing instead on the AfD’s plans for parliament — the creation of a commission of inquiry into Ms Merkel’s refugee policy. “[She] broke the law,” he said. “And it’s urgently necessary that we clarify the political background in the Bundestag so we can come to a clear legal solution.”

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