BERLIN—Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which just won a commanding lead in national elections, worked hard (some would say too hard) to show that it has shifted its policies on immigration since allowing one million refugees into the country in 2015.
But that didn’t stop the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, or AfD, from rising in opinion polls in recent weeks with a campaign that openly targeted Merkel, immigrants, and Islam. All of Berlin was plastered with bright “Burkas? We prefer Bikinis” posters more shamelessly racist than anything seen in London even at the boiling point of Brexit tensions.
Now AfD “will hunt Frau Merkel or whoever” and “take back our country and our people,” it’s 76-year-old co-candidate, Alexander Gauland, promised a crowd of fellow party members who gathered for a victory celebration after the anti-immigrant party raced in at third place in the exit polls with 13 percent of the vote.
Angela Merkel, in turn, pledged to listen to the “concerns and anxieties” of AfD voters. She is heading into her fourth term as chancellor with the headache of putting together a coalition without the Social Democrats, who flat-out refused to partner up again after they scored an all-time low result of only 20 percent. She’ll be looking to form a government with the Green party and the business-friendly (as well as climate change denying) FDP, which will also be tricky. If the talks don’t work out, it could mean new elections.
So the AfD is not positioned to take power. Far from it. But it can make trouble, and certainly will.
Behind the glossy veneer of its top candidates—Alexander Gauland’s tweed and Alice Weidel’s stiff white shirt—there are now candidates looking at seats who call the Holocaust a “myth,“ have declared the “cult of guilt“ as “finally over“ and have contacts to right-wing extremist gangs.
“That’s how things are,” teacher named Ibrahim told me in front of a voting station in Charlottenburg, shrugging.
In this part of western Berlin, posters are hung high, out of the reach of vandals, that show an AfD candidate with very thin lips, Nicolaus Fest, who once told me that borders had to be closed because “only those who throw others in the water are coming over.”
Last October, the AfD bragged about recruiting Dr. Fest, who is the son of Joachim Fest, a famous historian who wrote about the Third Reich, and the grandson of a Nazi-era dissident. (An old acquaintance of the family told me, “His father is turning in his grave.“)
Fest thought his family name made him the ideal candidate to make the party acceptable and electable for the bourgeoisie. But the press conference he gave for the AfD was not a success. He shamed his own party members by comparing Muslim headscarves to modern swastikas.
The AfD has moved even further to the radical right since then. When the aspiring “realist” Frauke Petry was ousted as the party’s candidate in the spring, Gauland and Weidel took over. Gauland is tight with Björn Höcke; the guy who gave a beer hall speech calling for a “180 degree turn” in the way Germany remembers its past. That peroration was supposed to be the end of his political career and herald the AfD’s decline.
But in the past weeks, the new co-candidates managed to recycle Höcke-style rhetoric for their hardline fans. (Gauland said he wants to “dispose” of the Social Democrat minister Aydan Özuguz in Anatolia), and be featured in headlines like “Alice Weidel stands by her homosexuality” in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the same time.
Saturday, I found Fest at an AfD stall set up outside Berlin’s central station. On the other side of the road, protesters were playing loud music and shouting about fascists, while some of the fascists wore blue body suits as if they are getting ready for nuclear warfare and said things like, “I see you looking charmingly curious!“ to confused-looking teenagers.
Nicolaus Fest didn’t want to wear the unflattering jumpsuit, nor did he look keen to strike up conversations with random passerbys. He was lurking in the corner in a blue sweater with the AfD logo, which he also seemed dissatisfied with: “Usually I am wearing a blazer.”
It must be disappointing to be the son of a formidable historian and the younger brother of one of Germany’s biggest publishers. Fest grew up rich and used to work for the auction house Sotheby’s in London. Now, he likes to watch Nigel Farage speeches on YouTube. “We don’t have speakers with this kind of quick wit in Germany,“ he told me.
Indeed, there was some hope that the total lack of charismatic leadership in the AfD would prevent it from mobilizing many voters. Gauland is not a good public speaker. Alice Weidel has been damned with faint praise as “well-rehearsed.” And Fest definitely isn’t a people person. When one woman rushed towards him excitedly, saying, “It’s getting worse and worse, I see them on the subway all the time!” he rudely cut her off: “I’m giving an interview.“
Party functionaries like Fest seem to prefer to think about technical issues, such as by how many points a terror attack could drive up their party’s approval ratings. But these are not the concerns of the hordes of rightwing hecklers who shouted at Merkel during her campaign events this summer.
“The big question for the next years will be: how do we win AfD voters back for the liberal-democrat center?” the journalist Heribert Prantl wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung this weekend.
For example: the people who are spending this evening as guards in their voting stations, because a Facebook event with the slogan “Watch Merkel’s fingers” has them convinced that the establishment is going to manipulate their votes.
But the other parties will not cooperate with the AfD, even as they try and win back its supporters. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a party that thrives off telling its base about how unfairly it is treated. As one AfD member complained recently, “The Social Democrats don’t even let us fill up their water glasses.”