BERLIN—It was just about six minutes into what should have been a triumphant press conference for Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s ascendant far-right party, when the vibe turned icy. No one had expected its co-chair and most famous international face, Frauke Petry, to choose this morning “after long deliberation” to announce that she would not join the party caucus in the Bundestag. Only Alexander Gauland, whom Petry had earlier criticized for promising to “hunt” Chancellor Angela Merkel, was blushing a little bit.
The very public schism in the AfD, just as it is poised to enter the German parliament after placing third in Sunday’s elections, which Merkel won, is symptomatic of massive problems all over Europe’s version of the “alt-right.”
A few months ago, such parties in Britain, France, and the Netherlands, looked like they were really on a roll. Donald Trump had been elected in the mighty United States after a race-baiting, Muslim-bashing, wall-building, sovereignty-swearing, and incidentally anti-European Union campaign much like their own.
But by the time the Netherlands went to the polls in March, the Trump luster had started to wane, and worse, as far as his European acolytes were concerned. Wilders failed to meet expectations, and a more traditional conservative, Mark Rutte, was positioned to form a government without him (an ongoing process).
Since then, Wilders’ own star has started to fade, and the rabid anti-immigrant types in his country have started to embrace a new kid on the block, Thierry Baudet—younger, suaver, better looking—who adds unrepentant Trump-style male-chauvinism to his macho anti-immigrant appeal.
In France, as recently as April, it seemed that Marine Le Pen of the National Front had a real chance at the presidency. Trump actually endorsed her. But as her preferred opponents were pushed aside by centrist Emmanuel Macron, and her one-on-one debate with him showed her wallowing in ineptitude, shuffling papers, and failing to get a rise out of him with tawdry allusions and insults, her hopes collapsed. Last week, so did her party’s leadership, as the brilliant vice president of her movement, Florian Phillippot, was forced out amid bitter and mutual recriminations.
In Britain, although Trump-buddy Nigel Farage has a radio show and gets quoted a lot, his U.K. Independence Party has crumbled since it led the campaign that brought us the Brexit vote last year. The favorite to become the new UKIP leader—who will be announced on Friday—is an outright Islamophobe called Anne Marie Walters who set up Pegida UK, emulating the anti-immigrant movement in Germany that seemed to have a lot of momentum two years ago, until the AfD stole its thunder and scarfed up many its supporters.
Right on cue, on Monday UKIP announced the schedule for their upcoming conference, which will include as a guest speaker: “a senior member of the AfD who as you know have just broken through into the Bundestag. This we believe will be the first major appearance of the breakthrough Eurosceptic party in the U.K. since the German Federal Elections. A must see moment for all students of European politics.”
Since Petry’s taken a walk, it will be interesting to see just who that might be.
Gauland must have been expecting Petry’s departure. Once, they were allies keeping the AfD united. But Gauland turned on Petry this April when he refused to expel an all too explicitly radical party member, Björn Höcke. Petry was hardly active in the AfD’s provocative election campaign. She arrived hours late to the victory party at the Traffic Club on Sunday night, and while she was gone, no one seemed to notice she was missing.
Petry, who will now sit in the Bundestag as an independent MP for her constituency in Saxony, may be able to lure more party members onto her side. “It depends on how smartly she has organized this, if she has spoken to people beforehand,” according to political scientist Hajo Funke.
There are already more cracks showing within the AfD that can’t be fixed. Hours after Petry’s announcement, four MPs in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern also said that they are leaving their parliamentary group because of “differences in the way we interact.”
Indeed, AfD politicians may well continue biting each other’s heads off over the next four years. And not just because of the divide between the self-described moderates and the hardline radicals (some people don’t like chatting to a holocaust denier at a party conference, others don’t mind so much). But also because they have pretty much let in anyone who wanted to join—except people who used to be part of the real neo-Nazi party, the NPD.
Which means that the 84 candidates who are now headed for the Bundestag with spending money for assistants and nice office supplies include at least one person who believes that Germany is being controlled by a “New World Order,” various climate change deniers, and a fan of Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011 to defend his twisted idea of national and racial sovereignty.
But a lot what some of what these brand new politicians believe and are qualified to do is going to be a surprise, even to for the high-ranking AfD functionaries, who did not expect to be filling this many seats.
The situation is reminiscent of what happened with the Pirate Party, which rose to power back in the late noughties. There was a lot of infighting, which was counterproductive and made worse because they filmed every meeting in the name of transparency. The Pirates’ short stint in politics then ultimately ended in murder when one member killed his lover and wheeled the body through the streets of Berlin.
But heavily hyped showdowns within a populist radical right party like the AfD will probably not have the same kind of negative impact. The Pirate Party’s main topic was Internet rights (important to young people!) but other parties were able to take up the Internet as well. They will be less keen to take up the AfD’s two favorite topics, which are hating Merkel and stirring up hatred against immigrants.
The AfD’s other leading candidate, Alice Weidel, yesterday promised to “initiate a parliamentary investigative committee against Angela Merkel” (because of her migration policies) while Gauland promised to “take back our country.” When asked in a TV debate what “constructive suggestions” he had for Germany, he made everyone laugh by saying “that is not our job.”
Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund of the United States says he believes that the AfD actually has favorable or “benign” conditions going forward, and may grow in the next four years. Before the elections, the party profited because “the established conservatives announced a program and didn’t produce what they promised.” Now “the conservative wing (CSU and CDU) is weakened and will not be able to get what they want.”
Also, the AfD can maintain its base by continuing to fuel the suspicion of the “elites in Berlin,” for as long as there are no big arguments about economics taking place between the two main parties. One reason why arguments haven’t been taking place is because Germany is relatively wealthy right now—even most AfD voters describe their economic situation as good.
But it the record of the far-right in Europe this year is any indication, the odds are the AfD’s members will spend as much time fighting among themselves as they do trying to tear down the Germany of Angela Merkel.
Christopher Dickey in Paris, Nico Hines in London, and Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam also contributed to this article.