Sidelined by rivals, Germany's far-right AfD bides time

Frank Jordans
Associated Press

Berlin — Immigration is a side issue in this year's German election campaign, but that hasn't stopped the country's biggest far-right party from trying to play it up.

“Cologne, Kassel or Konstanz can't cope with more Kabul,” Alternative for Germany declared on one of its posters ahead of the Sept. 26 election — a reference to the government's decision to take in several thousand Afghans who had worked for the German military or aid groups before the Taliban takeover.

In this Thursday, June 24, 2021 file photo Germany's far-right 'Alternative for Germany' (AfD) spokesperson Tino Chrupalla smiles after a news conference in Moscow, Russia.

Another poster, showing a retired couple embracing on a pier, reads: “We'll share our pensions, but not with the whole world. Solidarity has its limits.”

The party shook Germany's political establishment four years ago, when it came in third in parliamentary elections after stoking anti-immigrant sentiment over Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2015 decision to allow hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty into the country.

“The 2017 election was strongly influenced by refugee and migration politics,” said Hendrik Traeger, a political scientist at the University of Leipzig. “Alternative for Germany made that its core issue. This time it’s not among the top three election topics, though.”

According to surveys, the top issues this time include climate change, COVID-19, pensions and the economy.

The election will bring a changing of the guard to Germany. Merkel, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, is stepping down at age 67 after 16 years as chancellor.

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Polls indicate that Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, could struggle to hold on to the 12.6% share of the vote it got four years ago — though researchers note that respondents do not always admit in surveys that they will vote for the party.

Still, even with a low two-digit result, AfD could pose a headache for whichever party wins the election, forcing it to form a broader, more cumbersome coalition to secure a majority.

Polls put Merkel's Union bloc narrowly behind its junior partner, the center-left Social Democrats, less than two weeks before election day. They and all other parties have categorically ruled out working with AfD.

AfD's co-leader, Tino Chrupalla, has no illusions that his party will win big. But he said he is confident it can enter government in one of Germany's 16 states in the coming years and build on that.

Given the country’s Nazi past, the rise of AfD has alarmed many in Germany and beyond. The party has come under heightened scrutiny from German intelligence over its ties to extremists, and Jewish leaders have accused it of downplaying the crimes of the Nazis.

AfD opposes school mask requirements and other government coronavirus policies, does not see climate change as a human-made problem, has a cozy relationship with Russia and wants Germany to quit the European Union.

In this Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, a crowd of people attend an election campaign rally of German Alternative for Germany, AfD, party for the Saxony state elections in Bautzen, Germany.

Armin Laschet, who leads the Union bloc, has insisted his party will not ally with AfD. “We need Europe more than ever,” he said in June, accusing AfD of “harming German interests.”

That pledge will be put to the test in eastern states such as Saxony, where AfD came in a strong second with 27.5% of the vote in a state election two years ago.

“I'm pretty confident that sooner or later there's no way around Alternative for Germany,” Chrupalla said Wednesday. “That will certainly happen first in a state parliament.”

Chrupalla said he already has a lot of contact with Union politicians and sees common ground with candidates such as Hans-Georg Maassen, Germany's former domestic intelligence chief, now running for a seat in parliament's lower house, the Bundestag, on an anti-immigration platform. Many in Maassen's party aren't happy about his candidacy.

Maassen was ousted from his post as head of the BfV intelligence agency in 2018 after downplaying anti-immigrant violence.

In an effort to expand its base, AfD has backed opposition to the government's COVID-19 measures, arguing that the virus doesn't pose a great threat. Researchers say that in Saxony, resistance to vaccination is strongest in areas where support for AfD is greatest.

“I say we need to be more laid back,” Chrupalla said of the virus, which has killed almost 93,000 people in Germany. “This virus, which will probably never go away, like viruses in general never go away, we'll just have to live with it.”

As for climate change, which is listed as the most important topic among voters, AfD accuses others of stirring “panic,” wants Germany to quit the Paris accord and believes climate change should be viewed “positively.”