- - Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BERLIN — When the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, placed a best-ever third in Germany’s Sept. 24 general election with 12.6 percent of the vote, supporters celebrated how their populist, anti-Islamic rhetoric rang true for many German voters.

But only 24 hours after the AfD’s historic win, the first right-wing party to enter the lower house of the German parliament since the 1950s already seemed headed for disaster.

Longtime party leader Frauke Petry dropped a bombshell at a post-election press conference the day after the elections when she announced she wouldn’t be representing the party in parliament, but instead would head up a new conservative political faction called the Blue Party.

Success hasn’t exactly spoiled the AfD, but party backers are finding it makes things a lot more complicated compared to the simple old days of opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-arms immigration policies. And with the mainstream parties poaching on its signature issues, there are already questions of whether the upstart party can maintain its recent momentum.

“The AfD has wandered from being a goal-oriented party to an anarchist party acting as the opposition rather than offering voters a real chance to soon take over governing,” Ms. Petry wrote in a Facebook post soon after storming out of the meeting with reporters.

Mired in internal conflict, the AfD will need to recalibrate its ideological compass to remain a viable oppositional force to the center-right coalition led by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which placed first in the elections, said analysts.

“At some point, everyone will be frustrated because the AfD isn’t delivering on expectations,” said Josef Janning, director and senior policy fellow of the Berlin branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Voters might come to believe that the AfD isn’t “nationalist enough or radical enough, but at the same time doesn’t have enough impact because it isn’t mainstream enough,” he added.

Radical, predominantly East German factions within the party have steadily challenged the country’s postwar political correctness and policy moderation, alienating the party’s less extreme conservatives.

Early this year, for example, the party’s leader in the East German state of Thuringia, Bjorn Hoecke, said Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of the Holocaust is a “memorial of shame in the heart of the capital.” Ms. Petry and others failed to oust Mr. Hoecke from the party’s ranks. Current AfD leader Alexander Gauland and other embrace him.

Petry stepping out straight away after the biggest success of the party shows that basically the party is not very homogenous, and there are big struggles ahead,” said Florian Hartleb, a political analyst and expert on right-wing forces in Berlin. Her departure is a sign that “the party is going to the far, far right,” he added.

Founded in 2013 as a party of euroskeptics who opposed Germany’s bailout of struggling eurozone members like Greece, the AfD rebranded itself as the standard-bearer of German nationalism at the onset of the nation’s refugee crisis in late 2015. The party’s popularity rose on criticism of Ms. Merkel opening the country’s borders to more than 1 million refugees fleeing war and humanitarian crises in Syria and elsewhere — a policy even Ms. Merkel later conceded overloaded the German political circuits and strained social welfare networks.

Tapping the zeitgeist

Under Ms. Petry’s leadership, the party tapped into a cultural zeitgeist of Germans fearing a loss of national identity. Effectively employing anti-Islamic and nationalist rhetoric, the party won seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 powerful regional parliaments.

Although 60 percent of the party’s voters on Sept. 24 chose the AfD in protest against the political establishment, its success diminished the clout of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who lost more than 1 million votes to the AfD, according to polling data from German public broadcaster ARD.

The AfD’s meteoric rise is in part due to a resurgence of national pride in Germany, a sentiment long taboo due to the nation’s fraught history with fascism, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior adviser in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a political think tank based in Brussels.

“Many Germans want a new relationship with their culture and its history, and the AfD incorporated this new sense of pride into their platform and used it to fight the establishment,” he said. “It’s not really about the AfD per se, but rather about the lengths to which German society is willing to go to have the political establishment realize the issues that are important to them.”

Germany’s mainstream parties received the message.

In a largely symbolic move, Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats recently reached an agreement with its sister party, the Christian Socialist Union in Bavaria, on an upper limit for the amount of refugees the nation will accept annually.

While not a hard cap, the alliance of mainstream conservative parties announced it will attempt to constrain the number of refugees to 200,000 a year, a policy long shunned by the more liberal chancellor.

Meanwhile, even politicians from Germany’s left-wing establishment have begun employing rhetoric once reserved for nationalists.

“We love this country. It’s our homeland,” said Green Party co-chair Katrin Goering Eckardt at a rally two days after the AfD’s breakthrough election results. “We’ll fight for our homeland!”

But Ms. Merkel’s political problems are by no means over. A loss to the center-left Social Democrats in a regional election Sunday in Lower Saxony has dented her power even as she tries again to put together a governing coalition following the Sept. 24 result. The two likely candidates to join her conservative coalition are the free market Free Democrats and the leftist Greens, who have very different ideas about how to address German immigration policy.

And the result of Sunday’s national vote in neighboring Austria, where the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party were the two top finishers, shows the enduring voter appeal of rising rightist forces across the continent.

And for all its internal drama, the AfD remains the third-largest political force in the German parliament, with multiple chances to play the provocateur as Ms. Merkel faces the burdens of governing.

The pivot in the political mainstream is “clearly recognizable” as the AfD’s influence, said the party’s deputy national chair, Beatrix Von Storch, in an email. The AfD’s ability to appeal to Germans from all walks of life has “pressured the other parties to concern themselves with our demands,” she added.

Ms. Von Storch predicted that Ms. Petry’s dramatic exit would end up being a “footnote in the party’s history.”

But Mr. Janning with the European Council on Foreign Relations viewed Ms. Merkel tacking to the right as a strategic ploy to politically neuter the AfD.

“It’s a systemic response of the German political system to seek to neutralize emerging political actors or forces,” he said. “As long as they have no potential to win votes, nobody pays attention — but when they do, the system responds not by taking over their views but by seeking to neutralize their impact.”

But with migration still a hot-button issue in German politics, it’s not clear if that tried-and-true strategy will work this time, said Mr. Hartleb.

“The AfD also has totally turned to the radical side within the party,” he said. “The decisive question is whether the mainstream parties will be able to find common ground in migration policy. It seems the influx of new culture was a bit too much for the German society at large.”

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