Flirting with Populism Is Germany's AFD a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?
Bernd Lucke, the founder of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party is often labelled as a dangerous right-wing populist. Now that the AFD is likely to win seats in the European Parliament on Sunday, he is trying to put on the friendliest face he can.
Mr. and Mrs. Lucke mull things over before deciding whether or not to show the reporter the room upstairs. They say it hasn't been cleaned, but it looks just fine. The room in which the Lucke's brown wooden desk is located is an orderly office, with a computer, striped wallpaper and pictures of people, animals and landscapes on the wall.
It's the intellectual hub of Lucke's party, the upstart euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AFD), which is likely to land seats in the European Parliament this Sunday for the first time. The party has been raising eyebrows across Europe as it flirts with populism, with many wondering if it will become Germany's answer to Europe's recent surge of right-wing populist parties, like France's National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Despite their anti-European nature, polls indicate right-wing populist parties may be the true victors in the EU vote.
This is where Lucke thinks about the party's big picture -- its platforms and where it stands in relationship to Islam, for example. If you want to understand his party's politics, it helps to look at his campaign posters, with slogans like "Have Courage to Be Germany," "For a Solid Currency Instead of Euro Debt Insanity," "Draghi Gambles, You Pay," "Clear Rules Are Needed for Immigration," or "Immigration Yes, But not Into Our Social System." One shows Kim Jong Un and poses the question: "What do the fat Korean kid and the EU have in common? Their understanding of democracy."
The room is also where he looks at the drawings of his eldest daughter Charlotte who, like his oldest son Friedrich, is also a member of the party. Lucke's wife Dorothea is, of course, a member and also helps out, even on policy matters. She manages the discussions, mans party stands at markets and events and also distributes election signs. Here in the Luckes' red brick house, in Winsen an der Luhe, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Hamburg, the AFD looks like a fun family enterprise.
Dorothea says they enjoy living here -- it's not very expensive and there's plenty of room for a family with five children. She says her husband also enjoys doing garden work. Soon, however, the family is likely to be moving to Brussels.
It's a cool April morning outside and the forsythias are in bloom. In the living room, Lucke, a popular pundit on Germany's talk show circuit and the AFD's main candidate in the European election, is ready to be interviewed. He looks younger than his 52 years, and today he's wearing a casual knitted pullover.
There are a lot of suspicions about the AFD's political motives in Germany, and in response, the Luckes have recently begun opening up their home up to journalists, as if to say, You have nothing to fear in us. Indeed, there are no German flags or any other symbols that might betray a sense of nationalism or right-wing populism.
Lucke is a macroeconomist and professor at the University of Hamburg, but he is currently on leave in order to focus on his political career. Polls suggest that Lucke will easily land a seat in the European Parliament, but little is known of the policies he will pursue or with which other parties the AFD may seek to cooperate at the EU level.
Striving for a Different Europe
One thing that is clear is that Lucke doesn't want the euro -- at least not the common currency as it exists at the moment. He also wants highly indebted Southern European countries to leave the common currency zone and rejects the mechanisms in place for bailing out the euro. He is striving for a different Europe -- or at least a different EU.
He has also launched a master plan, a draft for a future society that evokes a lot of suspicion about just how far to the right Lucke and his party really are.
Although Lucke only founded the AFD one year ago, it has already attracted 18,000 members, with the party hovering between five and seven percentage points in public opinion polls. Many people were surprised that a party politically to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats could establish itself so quickly in Germany.
It is one of several parties using the idea of Europe to mobilize nationalist sentiment. The UKIP of Britain's Nigel Farage, the Vrijheid of Holland's Geert Wilders and the National Front of Marine Le Pen are all harnessing feelings of threat and loss in order to attract voters to their movements. There is considerable speculation about the extent to which Lucke's party is similar to those others.
Railing at Europe
At a recent stop on his campaign trail a few weeks ago, Lucke was speaking to a crowd of 800 people in a beerhall in the town of Osterhofen in Bavaria.
With his small frame and youthful image, Lucke struggles with the superficial acts of politics -- waving, working a crowd, looking macho -- but he is good at talking about politics.
In the beerhall, he complains to the crowd about Europe and its energy-saving light bulbs, about Greeks who never pay their bills and about foreigners who immigrate to Germany in order to freeload off the welfare state. He argues that the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, has lost its character. Before the emergence of AFD, the CSU used to be one of Germany's most conservative parties, more so even than Merkel's own CDU.
Lucke also rails against modern mothers who "deposit their children at the daycare center" just as soon as the "umbilical cord has dried up." He also says he has the impression that "no one in parliament is interested in our children except, of course, Mr. Edathy" -- a reference to a Social Democratic Party politician, Sebastian Edathy, who was recently ousted amidst pedophilia accusations. It's a comment so nasty that some in the beer hall are taken aback.
Lucke says he comes up with his ideas on his own, working at the desk in his home office. All he has to do is look out the window or go for a walk in the neighborhood to find inspiration for his political views. He sees families who are taking care of their children and paying taxes that will quite possibly be transferred to Greece.
As he leaves the podium, the man who is arguably the AFD's most famous member congratulates him. "That was a very good speech," says Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former president of the influential Federation of German Industries (BDI). Since leaving that position, Henkel has made a name for himself as a populist pundit and author of books like "The Euro Liars: Absurd Bailout Packages and Hushed Up Risks" and "Rescue our Money: Germany Is Being Sold Out -- How the Euro Swindle is Threatening Our Prosperity." The two euro critics shaking hands is a money shot for photographers at the event.
But Lucke is careful about his image. "I never allow myself to be photographed with a beer glass in hand," he says, sitting down at the table. "That would be populist. Besides, I don't drink beer."
Lucke isn't an ascetic, but he does seem to take pains to demonstrate that he and his family are down-to-earth people. Lucke doesn't own a television. The family doesn't have a car, either. Bernd prefers to ride his bicycle to the train station and his children also use bikes to get around.
The Luckes are members of the Reformed Evangelical Church. With their views that children shouldn't be spoiled and that Greeks shouldn't be either, one could be forgiven for mistaking them for Calvinists.
Judging by her hairstyle and clothing, Dorothea Lucke is a very practical person. Like her husband Bernd, she completed a degree in economics. The two met when they were both doing internships at Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank. Today, she works from home as a freelancer writing reports for the prestigious German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).
So what made Bernd Lucke decide to enter into politics? In recent months, some have taken to calling him the "angry professor." Lucke responds by saying, "It wasn't anger. It was disappointment."
Bernd Lucke grew up in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and became involved in conservative politics at a young age, joining the youth group of the Christian Democrats at the age of 14. He says he was a big fan of Heiner Geissler, a popular conservative leader at the time who, like a good number of Christian Democrats, has moved to the center or even left over the years. It's this chameleon-like nature in the CDU that ultimately led to Lucke's frustration with the party -- he says its politics have veered too far away from his own views, particularly in the course of the global economic and euro crises.
When a discussion broke out in Germany in 2005 about increasing wages to stimulate the domestic economy, Lucke and a few other colleagues organized 243 academics to sign a letter that ran in a major German newspaper, criticizing pledges of higher wages by the SPD and warning of a "deep structural crisis that requires drastic and painful reforms." They spoke of the need for economic straight-talk and lambasted the use of class warfare rhetoric that could scare investors away from Germany.
Then, when the euro zone moved to replace the temporary bailout fund with the permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in 2011, he founded the Plenum of Economists, a group that has been virtually unanimous in its criticism of the measures. Lucke says he sent his "economic policy ideas" to the Chancellery, directly to Merkel, and also to the ministries. He says he generally received automatic replies or "words of thanks and "praise" ín return. He says his ideas were well-received in academic circles, but fell flat and had no impact with the public, and so his only choice, he felt, was to establish his own political party.
Lucke says he never aspired to become a politician and that he would prefer to be viewed as a concerned citizen attempting to warn politicians that things are heading in the wrong direction. The term "concerned citizen," though, sounds a bit like the lingo of the Tea Party, the right-wing fringe of the US Republicans. His tone also seems to take its cue from Sarah Palin: Look, I'm one of you, crusading against the elite. He seems like the soccer dad to Palin's hockey mom.
- Part 1: Is Germany's AFD a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?
- Part 2: The Genie is Out of the Bottle