July 11, 2023

IntelBrief: Far-Right Populism is Back on the Menu

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party recently won two local elections in breakthrough victories, marking the first time the party has captured either a prominent regional or mayoral post.
  • Despite being surveilled by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency and its youth wing being classified as an ‘extremist’ organization, AfD’s poll numbers rival that of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party.
  • Rising energy costs, widespread inflation, and migration levels that have doubled over last year are providing fodder for far-right messaging throughout Europe.
  • The AfD’s victories in Germany, as well as the recent collapse of the Dutch government, may prove to be a bellwether for the appeal of far-right policies and parties in 2024 European Parliament elections.

The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won two local elections in breakthrough victories in recent weeks, marking the first time the party has captured either a prominent regional or mayoral post. Although both posts may not hold significant national political weight – one being a district administrator seat comparable to the mayorship of a mid-sized town, the other a mayoral post in a small town – the victories have resonated throughout the country and are indicative of the party’s resurgent strength in Germany. They are also important symbolically. While AfD currently holds 78 seats in the Bundestag, it had not previously claimed either the majority of a district’s electoral support or bureaucratic authority over an area. Both of these recent wins reflect broader national trends: several recent polls project that if elections were held in Germany today, AfD would claim 20 percent of the vote, equal to that of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party. This level of support marks a distinct shift for the AfD, reflecting the broadening of its voter base beyond its political center of gravity. Further, AfD’s strengthening popularity not only seemingly counters pre-mature prognostications that far-right populists in the West may be on the back foot, but also reflects the increasing resonance of its messaging to the electorate.

The far-right, anti-immigrant AfD party catapulted to prominence when it became the official opposition and third-largest party in the German government in 2017, just four years after the party’s founding. Its sudden national prominence, coupled with its anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric and policies, occurred concurrently with an influx of refugees to Europe, mostly from Syria, as well as a surge in support for far-right populist parties more broadly across Europe. AfD lost its position as Germany’s main opposition party in the 2021 parliamentary elections, leading some analysts to suggest that it had exhausted its chances of further mainstreaming its messaging and expanding beyond its strongholds in eastern Germany. Yet the July 1 victory of AfD’s Hannes Loth in the city of Raguhn-Jessnitz and the June 25 victory of Robert Sesselman in the district of Sonneberg, combined with national polling trends, suggest otherwise.

Not only has support for the party not waned despite several blows to its image and reputation, but the party could in fact continue to grow as it mainstreams its messaging and draws new voters into its base. The entire party is reportedly under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In May, the BfV classified the AfD’s youth wing, known as the Young Alternative, as an extremist organization pursuing anti-constitutional endeavors. Supporters have also marched with neo-Nazis in demonstrations against COVID-19 policies and Germany’s support for Ukraine. In December, a former AfD lawmaker and judge was arrested as part of an alleged plot to overthrow the German government, and a former technical reconnaissance director at Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) with suspected AfD sympathies was arrested on charges of treason and spying for Russia. The increased scrutiny and the involvement of a party member with an attempted coup d’état have not proven enough to quell support for the party, displaying the entrenched nature, and potential longevity, of its support.

Rising energy costs, which have contributed directly to an overall higher cost of living, as well as higher-than-average migration levels into the continent, have all provided ample fodder for far-right populist parties’ messaging throughout Europe. Although nowhere near the levels seen in 2015, there has been a significant rise in the number of migrants and refugees setting sail for Europe from North Africa. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there have been 90,605 total arrivals to Europe via the Mediterranean route so far in 2023, compared with around 45,377 arrivals by sea this same time last year. Due to tighter border restrictions and diminished legal pathways, the route is becoming deadlier as those fleeing conflict or dire economic situations are undertaking riskier behavior on the journey – including overcrowding in boats prone to capsizing or sinking. In mid-June, an overcrowded fishing vessel carrying up to 750 people capsized off the coast of southern Greece in one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in years: at least 80 are confirmed dead and up to 500 are still considered missing. Reflecting both the state of the crisis and the strengthening hand of far-right populists, the European Union is set to provide Tunisia with one billion euros in aid, in part to help stem migration to Europe. Led by the Dutch and Italian prime ministers, the effort has been heavily critiqued by human rights groups.

The issue of migration, and particularly the fate of asylum seekers and refugees, led to the collapse of the Dutch government on July 7. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, announced he will quit politics altogether and eschew seeking a fifth consecutive term. Seemingly irreconcilable differences on proposed measures to reduce migration led to the collapse of the governing coalition, and the issue is bound to dominate campaigning before the general election scheduled for the fall. The situation provides a further opportunity for the Dutch far-right, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, founded by the notorious far-right firebrand Geert Wilders in 2006, to not only capitalize on the migration situation in the Mediterranean but also to further mainstream its messaging and continue to gain concessions from more centrist parties. The collapse of the Dutch parliament, as well as the AfD’s victories in Germany and the electoral successes of other far-right parties in Europe, may prove to be a bellwether for the appeal of far-right policies and parties in upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024.