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).

'Disappointment'

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.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

Members of Lucke's party pine for a two-class election system in Germany that would limit the voting rights of the long-term unemployed and pensioners. They also sometimes order the press to leave the building during party meetings and seem to have trouble with the idea of gender equality.

When asked directly if his party is right-wing populist, Lucke responds with a resounding "no." He says such portrayals are an attempt to "defame us."

But a simple perusal of the comments posted by AFD supporters on Facebook can be cringe-inducing. There are posts disparaging the center-left Social Democrats and Green Party as "riff-raff" or "leftist assholes." Another post warns: "It's important for the Alternative for Germany to persevere. For me it's the only ray of hope in this dirty, corrupt country."

Lucke himself concedes that some of the things posted on the party's page aren't pleasant. "But we allow the freedom of opinion there, and they include those from thousands of people who aren't even members of the party."

Every new party has its share of problematic followers, nut cases and malcontents. They include the frustrated, the bitter and people who simply have too much time on their hands. The AFD seems to attract all of these types, in large quantities.

The party has also been especially successful at attracting bad press. There have been reports about infighting in its state chapters, people resigning from the party, people getting kicked out, a lack of transparency in party financing, loans from rich businesspeople. The party has also raised eyebrows with a loan from a major Hamburg shipping magnate as well as a personal loan from Hans-Olaf Henkel himself. The general impression is one of conflict.

A Motley Crew of Supporters

As a party, the AFP seems to be a magnet for upper middle-class conservatives, members of Germany's conservative student fraternities, former supporters of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (ousted from parliament in the last election), people fond of reading German politician Thilo Sarrazin's anti-immigrant diatribes and those with a penchant for nationalism. In recent years, Merkel has said that there is "no alternative" to many of her policies, a figure of speech that has driven many civil rights activists, some even from the Green Party, to the AFD.

The party has a motley crew of supporters backing it. When he founded the party, Lucke thought that someone had to ensure order. But the draft statutes with which Lucke and the party's board sought to make that possible triggered a chaotic debate at a recent party conference.

The party has grown unwieldy and, given the maverick tendencies of its supporters, Lucke is going to have to trouble containing it. Besides, Lucke himself said he wanted to give every citizen a voice. Now they're using theirs.

But that has consequences, too. Bizarre things can happen at an AFD party conference, like the man who grabbed the microphone in the middle of a debate and demanded that everyone sing the German national anthem until they were too tired to continue. Or the scowling lawyer from Baden-Württemberg who -- surrounded by a group of men with neatly parted hair who looked a bit like bodyguards -- wanted to be elected to party office. When asked why he wanted a post, he said: "You're asking me too many questions." When asked why he wanted to be in the party, he answered, "There you go, asking questions again," before leaving with his entourage.

Some at the party conference preferred not to say what it was they wanted from the party, whereas others gave short talks. One theme, somewhat conspiratorially, seemed to come up again and again: That there are certain things that people in Germany aren't free to talk about.

It's something that Lucke likes to say, too.

The Party's Friendly Face

Lucke is the party's friendly public face, it's valid to wonder whether he is merely masking his true politics.

On the German election day last September, when the AFD came very close but ultimately failed to enter the Bundestag with 4.7 percent of the vote, Lucke took to the stage. Despite the failure, he was still beaming with pride, saying that the AFD had managed to instill a sense of fear in other parties. He said they had successfully "protested against the degeneration of democracy."

Degeneracy, a word straight from the National Socialist vocabulary -- as in "degenerate art."

In his living room at home, he gesticulates while defending his use of the word, and explains how he doesn't understand the criticism he faced for using it.

But at his appearance in Osterhofen in Bavaria -- where he made the crack about former member of parliament Edathy and his concern for children -- Lucke also made a joke about Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer being a "degenerate" driver. It made his audience laugh.

Lucke likes to say there is a language police in Germany -- like a thought police that forbids the use of certain open, honest words. But by using terms like "thought police" he also seems to give himself carte blanche to trash talk people as being narrow-minded. It's a slippery slope.

Family Values

It's mid-afternoon. The doorbell rings. Seventeen-year-old Charlotte comes home from school. Soon she'll be going away to college. At first she was interested in art, but now it is likely she will pursue studies in economics like her father, mother and brother Friedrich, who is two years her senior.

Friedrich, who is studying at the University of Freiburg, also drops by a little later. He stands in the kitchen with a cookbook of baking recipes under his arm. He says he chose to study economics because it's an interesting major for political thinkers. He also says it was his own decision to take up an interest in politics.

There's a picture on the wall in the living room showing him and his other brother as small boys with their parents. A friend of the family painted it in 1995 in the style of German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge. The painting seems to hint at the future party's family values message.

"Marriage between a man and a woman is the desired family policy," states a passage in the party's platforms approved by a majority of members. Lucke says he doesn't want to rule out the possibility that there are same-sex couples who take good care of their children, but he believes "family" is the wrong word to describe them. He says a new term is needed to describe such associations.

Family, it turns out, is one of the more controversial issues surrounding the AFD. "People are very easily discredited," Lucke says. "When a politician like Beatrix von Storch" -- one of the AFD's top candidates in the European election, who has stated in her own words that she is opposed to equal status for women as well as same-sex marriage -- "promotes traditional family values, then is immediately branded as being ultra-conservative," he says.

Of course, as the socially acceptable public face of the party, Lucke is careful not to go too far, especially in the run-up to the election. Lucke has strongly distanced himself from Wilder's Vrijheid, Le Pen's Front National and Farage's UKIP. But there are other people in his party who view things differently. Members of the Young Alternative, the youth wing of his party, recently held a joint event with the heads of UKIP in Cologne.

Lucke shrugs it off. "The Youth Alternative isn't formally part of our party," he explains. "And you know how young people can be. They love opposing authority. So when those of us in the national party say we don't want to have anything to do with Farage, then some young people are itching to draw attention to themselves by acting rebelliously."

As Sunday's election draws nearer, the rhetoric is getting sharper. The left-wing radicals with Germany's anti-fascist Black Bloc have turned their attention to the AFD in recent days, and an increasing number of the party's signs have been destroyed or have disappeared. To prevent this, the Lucke family has been riding around on their bikes at night, picking up all the signs they can carry, placing them in their garage and then returning them to their appropriate sites the next morning.

'Do You See Any Right-Wing Extremists Here?'

On a spring evening at an AFD event in Hamburg, a number of police are standing in front of two dozen young people dressed in black. They are likely members of an "Antifa" group, as left-wing anti-fascist activists are called in Germany. But they aren't carrying any fliers or campaign signs. So why are they here?

They remain silent when questioned. They don't want to say anything -- at least not to the mainstream press. They're just there and don't really seem to know what they are supposed to do. Their presence attracts the police. Everyone stares at the odd people wanting to attend Bernd Lucke's event. Do they look like members of the far right?

At the beer table, sitting in front of a half-empty glass of beer that he has been staring at lengthily and profoundly, one man asks the same question out loud: "So, do you see any right-wing extremists here?"

It's a difficult question. How can you tell?

At the event, Lucke says the things one has come to expect of him: that the euro is responsible for Europe's crisis and that Southern European countries should leave the euro zone of their own accord. When, at times, his professorial side creeps in and he starts talking about things like "macroeconomic indicators," the audience seems less interested.

Later, a man asks if Europe's common currency is more of a golden calf or a Trojan horse? An elderly woman expresses her worry that her money might become worthless if the euro fall apart, seemingly drawing on her memories of the last time a German currency collapsed -- after WWII.

There are more questions of that nature, but also ones that Lucke isn't keen on hearing. One man with a British accents asks if there are other parties the AFD could envision working with in Brussels. Lucke responds by saying the AFD will not work together with UKIP. A woman with a slight French accent also asks if the party might be willing to work together with the National Front. "No," he says.

When a man states that Putin has demonstrated that borders are no longer eternal and then asks which country South Tyrol (which was annexed by Italy from Austria at the end of World War I) should belong to, Lucke quickly brushes off the question with a laugh.

Then another man stands up, but this time it's no laughing matter. He asks, hypothetically, how Lucke would respond if he were to one day drink vodka with Putin and the Russian president were to offer to give East Prussia (in today's Poland) back to Germany? Lucke says "no," Germany would have to adhere to the treaties it signed after World War II.

He then makes his way back home to Winsen.

With the AFD, Lucke has let a genie out of the bottle. He's going to have a very tough time getting it back in.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey.