Wracked by a lack of constructive ideas, Alternative für Deutschland is spreading misinformation and endangering public health. Yet the blatant attempts of Germany’s far right party to gain political capital from the Covid-19 pandemic have been shown to be fruitless. This situation clearly shows that the party, which has relied so much on populist rhetoric over the last years, is struggling to make an impact for the first time when Angela Merkel’s government is benefitting from Germany’s effective handling of the pandemic.
On the federal level, the AfD, third biggest party, and biggest opposition party in the Bundestag, overwhelmingly voted in favour of the emergency legislation put forward by the governing CDU/CSU and SPD coalition. In Jungen Freiheit, a popular newspaper among AfD politicians and voters, Jörg Meuthen, a federal spokesperson for the party, described the protection measures as correct and necessary. What’s more, he stated that the party would be on board with the refusal to issue Eurobonds for the Eurozone’s struggling economies.
The pandemic has clearly caused a dilemma for the party. While many voters might expect them to fight against the establishment, they also now rely on emergency funds from the government. Also, the AfD’s main talking points – the fight against migration, Islam, and Brussels – are out of the spotlight. They are not currently as important for voters as they were before the crisis.
The only way the party could profit from this situation, would be if the billions injected into the system do not have a long-term effect and an economic downturn continues to scar Germany’s economy over a long period of time.
Yet, since as many AfD politicians also voted for these measures themselves, disappointed AfD voters could conceivably also turn on them later as well. It will not be so easy to scapegoat others, try as they might. They, too, are now a part of the system’s coronavirus response.
On the local level, too, the lack of ideas and policy proposals has had a negative impact. Recent survey data shows AfD’s share of the vote declining to below 10% in certain areas. This is bad news for a party that has only experienced surges in the polls since its creation.
After the other parties released their propositions on how to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, the AfD finally released their 7-point programme in the middle of March.
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Their suggestions were neither surprising, nor groundbreaking: continuing pay for parents, who care for their children at home, a fund to help self-employed workers, a safety net for the tourism industry, fast internet access for all Germans and a guarantee for food supply. The party proposed the same measures that the parties often described as being a part of the establishment have been pursuing and implementing.
It is true that leading AfD politicians warned of the dangers stemming from the virus early on. But the party seemed disoriented in the weeks leading up to the release of their proposal. The continuous narrative of the party – that the federal government is continuously acting in the wrong way – clearly isn’t as convincing in times of this pandemic.
In a time of crisis, the Angela Merkel’s government is enjoying a rallying effect – and, unsurprisingly, most voters generally want their government to succeed at a time of national hardship.
Desperate to find solutions to their predicament, some of the party’s members of the Bundestag have called for a special session, against the will of the party chairs, Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland. Despite concerns about spreading the virus in close quarters, almost 70 of the 89 AfD members of parliament got together to discuss ideas and find “Verbindung zu den Leithemen” (“connections to the guiding themes”) of the party.
They have now decided to position themselves as the opposition to what they identify as a blend of industrial decline, restrictions to basic liberties and a supply crisis that could prove more dangerous to German society than the pandemic.
For now, they are playing the waiting game. AfD believe they are poised to exploit what may develop into a longer-term crisis. Seeking to expand on their eastern heartlands, they are hoping to exploit any downturn from the crisis to help the party gain footholds in the western parts of Germany. Here, the party thinks, discontent with the fallout from Covid-19 could push voters away from the reigning parties. Even before the crisis, Jörg Meuthen hypothesised that a looming recession in Germany would lead to the “old securities in the west not existing anymore”.
There are reasons for the mainstream parties to be concerned by this. The majority of the AfD voter base consists of self-employed people, but there are also many from the middle class who also opt for AfD in the ballot box. Those are the voters whose livelihoods are at stake now – in an anxious electorate who vote for the party out of fear of social disorder. The course of the crisis and the strength of the party is likely to be strongly connected.
The AfD, sensing an opportunity, is ramping up the rhetoric. In a recent interview, Meuthen and the AfD have demanded “consistent enforcement” of the closed border for asylum seekers. In this national emergency, he urges that it must be possible to stop the entry of new migrants of all kinds. On his Facebook page, he sought to stoke fear on this front, incorrectly spreading the idea that non-EU citizens can still travel around without restrictions, and “hereby might even spread the virus”.
The reality could not be more different. Asylum seekers are currently subject to rigorous health checks, and can be refused entry, according to a spokesman for the Federal Interior Ministry.
All the while, the AfD spins an indulgent fiction. It disregards the fact that it wasn’t asylum seekers who were among the first infected in Germany, but Bavarian workers, German businesspeople and Germans returning from skiing and carnival vacations.
There have also been attempts to find bogeymen who can be scapegoated and made responsible for the situation. The head of the Berlin faction, Georg Pazderski, has named adolescents as being the chief culprits for the spread of the virus. Christian Wirth, member of the Bundestag, proposed to use the non-used planes for a “fast and effective return of almost 250,000 migrants obliged to leave the country”.
The most unconvincing episode, however, was an attempt made by the Saxonian AfD to gain media coverage by handing over 200 handmade facemasks to the local university hospital in Dresden. The party celebrated its action as helping the distressed doctors and nurses. The hospital, feeling politically used, donated the masks to the local refugee shelter.
The incident illustrated that the AfD is a party short on solutions when the mainstream establishment is resurgent. But as this crisis lengthens, its leaders are on the look out for a way to exploit the situation and make their party relevant again.