Pinterest WhatsApp

A few years ago, Germany hardly had any significant populist radical right or extreme right parties in its parliaments. Now, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has strong local and regional roots and is represented in 14 of 16 state parliaments and in the Bundestag.

The AfD: an imminent threat to democracy in Germany?

Recent polls for the upcoming 2024 state elections in Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony show the AfD as the strongest force in all three states, with support of up to 32% and 35%. Contrary to the oft-repeated perception that the AfD is an East German phenomenon, recent elections in Hesse and Bavaria in October of this year, where the party secured 18.4% and 14.6% respectively, coupled with national polls showing 19% to 23% support for the AfD, underscore its national significance. It has become clear that the AfD represents a challenge to German democracy that must be met head on.

So far, different approaches have been taken at (party) political levels with varying degrees of success – albeit under unequal conditions: Schleswig-Holstein is governed by a stable coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and The Greens, which clearly distances itself from the AfD in form and content. Minister-President Daniel Günther stated: “I do not form majorities with extremists.” Saxony is governed by a fractious CDU-dominated so-called Kenya coalition consisting of the CDU, the Social Democrats (SPD) and The Greens, which has not defined a clear position on how to deal with the AfD. Despite publicly distancing itself from the AfD, the CDU repeatedly adopts positions that coincide with those of the AfD and are diametrically opposed to important resolutions and positions of the federal party, such as on issues of migration policy and Russia’s war on Ukraine. The result is – under these not negligible (!) unequal auspices: In Schleswig-Holstein, the AfD failed to re-enter the state parliament in the last election – in Saxony, the AfD could become the largest parliamentary group after the state elections in September 2024.

In the interest of averting the dangers to liberal democracy, the democratic parties need a broad and uniform but adaptable strategy for dealing with the AfD. This strategy should draw on experience from political and parliamentary practice, insights from academic research, and a strong civil society. This approach cannot be applied universally, nor does it offer a guarantee of success – it is merely an approximation.

Dealing with the AfD: a three-pillar strategy

By synthesising existing perspectives and findings, I propose a three-pillar strategy for dealing with the AfD, using the following framework: Initiatives to contain the AfD can be distinguished between formal levels (elections or legislative initiatives, non-participation in joint media formats) and policy levels (motions or speeches in parliament, TV debates). The arenas in which mainstream parties can engage with the AfD can be categorised into parliament, party competition and media publicity.

The first pillar is the renunciation of cooperation with the AfD, which must be decided at the highest party level and implemented consistently down to the lowest level. This excludes any political or legislative rapprochement along the lines of the “Schweriner Weg”. This was an agreement between the parliamentary groups of the CDU, SPD, FDP, The Greens and The Left in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on how to deal with the extreme right NPD while they were in the state parliament from 2006 to 2016. Specifically, no (legislative) initiatives of the NPD were to be supported. Instead, if the NPD attempted to address a substantive issue with a bill, the mainstream parties submitted their own bills. As a matter of principle, only one spokesperson from the above-mentioned parliamentary groups responded to NPD speeches, and joint appearances in public and in the media were avoided to prevent targeted scandalisation – whether in the form of self-victimisation or the dissemination of extremist content. The same must now be applied to the AfD. Furthermore, despite its long parliamentary tradition, the AfD should be denied cooperation – as has already happened in the case of the election of some committee chairs in the German Bundestag. The AfD should only be granted those positions to which the party or its MPs have an inescapable legal claim. Although the party is democratically elected, it is hostile to the values and procedures of the “free democratic basic order” (FDGO), according to the assessment of several academics and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The second pillar is an attractive political offer to voters. This must include a recognisable programmatic alternative for “good politics” that benefits citizens and makes politics accessible and positive in a tangible way – from the local to the federal level. At its core, this concerns services of general interest and the promotion of community and social cohesion, which citizens rightly expect from the state, but which in many places are no longer provided in a satisfactory way. Elsewhere, however, considerable sums of money are being spent without citizens being adequately informed about the purpose and long-term effects of, for example, investments in technology locations (such as TSMC in Dresden or Intel in Magdeburg). Here, people’s needs and the needs of the economy must be reconciled through shrewd decision-making and smart communication of results, especially to reduce social inequality and reconcile it with economic and ecological sustainability.

The third pillar focuses on party competition and includes the thorough examination and preparation of a possible ban on the AfD, as recently called for by the former Federal Government Commissioner for Eastern Germany, Marco Wanderwitz. The almost “synchronous radicalisation of party and voters as well as the disloyalty to the free democratic basic order and a pluralistic society” must be clearly pointed out: the development from a populist radical right party to an extreme right party. The mistakes made in the attempt to ban the NPD must be avoided. In contrast to the NPD, the AfD’s parliamentary and media presence and its social significance mean that there should be no lack of “concrete indications of weight that make it appear possible that the unconstitutional goals it pursues could be implemented”.

A chance for liberal democracy?

Overall, confidently containing the AfD requires a positive focus on liberal democracy and a strong constitutional state that can defend itself. This approach should extend to interactions with the party and its representatives in parliaments and the media, as well as to the party as a suspected anti-constitutional organisation. Above all, the approach to contain the AfD must involve the mainstream parties refining their political programmes to win over voters to the liberal democratic basic order and the participatory opportunities for citizens inherent in it.


Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford.



Previous post

Far-right triumphs in Argentina and the Netherlands highlight systemic risks to democracies

Next post

Defining the ‘right to seek political office’: The case of Mexico’s Marcelo Ebrard