The right-wing Alternative for Germany party is celebrating its first-ever seats in the German parliament and has vowed to shake up Berlin politics. But there are doubts as to whether the party can maintain discipline.
It seems as though the AfD simply can't wait any longer. It's just 5:45 p.m. when the right-wing populist party's lead candidate Alexander Gauland walks onto the stage at the Traffic Club in Berlin, still 15 minutes before the first projections are to be released. But he is ready to start the party.
When the clock finally does strike six and the initial exit polls indicate that the party has won more than 13 percent of the vote, blue and white balloons rain down from the ceiling. Those gathered sing the national anthem and begin chanting "AfD, AfD, AfD."
Gauland immediately strikes exactly the right chord for his party's mood: "We will change this country," he calls out. "We will chase them down, Angela Merkel and whoever else, and we will take our country back." Again, the AfD chant fills the room.
Gauland's comments and the reaction to them make it clearer than ever that this isn't just a normal party celebrating its first ever seats in the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament. The AfD has plenty of right-wing extremists in its ranks, it has sought to minimize the crimes of the Nazis in World War II and is well-versed in Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric. The right-wing populists will change the Bundestag just as they have 13 state parliaments already.
Initial, off-the-record forecasts already began circulating in the afternoon, some of them indicating a result that was potentially even higher. The difference between those numbers and the projections released after polls closed at 6 p.m. may be the result of AfD voters being particularly motivated and casting their ballots early in the day.
At the Traffic Club, guests begin taking advantage of the alcoholic beverages on offer early in the evening, with the refrigerators behind the bar already having to be refilled at 5 p.m. The space in front of the stage, normally filled with dancers during the club's party nights, people are crowding forward, with sweaty AfD functionaries fighting with camera operators for the best spots. Loud music is pumped into the room: "Crying at the Discoteque."
"We are the natural successors to the CDU," says Armin Paul Hampel, head of the AfD's chapter in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, once the atmosphere had calmed a bit. He is referring to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats - and his claim is free of irony. In Hampel's state, a new state parliament will be elected just three weeks from now. And he hasn't stopped campaigning even on the night of the federal election. He says he hopes for a "two-digit result" and demands "disciplined and constructive work" from the federal party in the coming weeks.
The comment reveals a faint whiff of doubt about the professionalism and unity of his party, and that is all that casts a slight shadow over the evening's festivities. With initial projections indicating a result of over 13 percent, the party will be sending more than 85 deputies to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and it is already clear that the extreme right-wing will dominate the caucus.
Jörg Nobis, AfD floor leader in the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament, believes that it will be up to Gauland and his co-lead candidate, Alice Weidel, to maintain discipline. "The leadership of the new faction will have a large responsibility for keeping the party together."
This evening though, Weidel only takes the stage an hour after Gauland, with deputy party head Beatrix von Storch holding the first speech after Gauland. Nobis says that the AfD has two wings and adds that the more moderate wing, led by Frauke Petry, must first win back the party's trust.
Gauland also warns that "the fight isn't over yet." During the campaign, he repeatedly attracted attention for crossing the lines of decency, saying, for example, that Aydan Özoguz, the Hamburg-born Turkish-German federal commissioner for integration, should be "disposed of" in Anatolia. In early September, he said Germans "have a right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars."
On Sunday evening, though, he strikes a different chord, surprisingly demanding from his fellow AfD members to "avoid making comments that can be used against us later." Is it a tactical shift?
If it is, it doesn't seem to be one that von Storch is interested in adhering to. The loudest applause during her speech comes when she demands that "the saying 'refugees welcome' be turned back into what it once was: a saying by left-wing radical crackpots."
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