Narrow Failure Will Germany's Anti-Euro AFD Party Implode?

Germany's euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party came tantalizingly close to the threshold needed for parliamentary representation in Sunday's election. But it failed. Now members are worried that the young party could unravel.
Alternative for Germany leader Bernd Lucke: if he quits, the party may not recover.

Alternative for Germany leader Bernd Lucke: if he quits, the party may not recover.

Foto: AP/dpa

Someone hands a toy sword up to party chairman Bernd Lucke who is standing onstage. Lucke grabs hold of the sword, which is the same bright blue color that represents Lucke's anti-euro party, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany). Jubilant supporters in the ballroom of Berlin's Maritim Hotel cheer and chant his name.

He is Lucke, their Luke Skywalker. Lucke, the luminary among euroskeptics.

Alternative for Germany's 4.7 percent result in Sunday's election for the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, is an astonishing success for a party only seven months old. It's also a historic success -- the Green Party, in its first run for the Bundestag in 1980, achieved just 1.5 percent. But 4.7 percent is also a failure, falling just short of the 5 percent hurdle a party must achieve in order to hold seats in the Bundestag, and Lucke isn't feeling particularly victorious. Once he climbs down onto the ballroom floor, his smile is gone and his youthful face takes on a bitter expression, deep lines forming around his eyes.

He says he needs to take time to think about where things should go from here. He doesn't say out loud the thing his supporters fear most -- that their Luke Skywalker might resign his position and return to Hamburg University, where he is a professor of economics. No comment, Lucke says when asked about this possibility. First he needs to think.


Photo Gallery: The German Election in Numbers

If he quits, Alternative for Germany would find itself staring into the abyss. The party has 16,000 members but no staff infrastructure, no detailed platform -- and no government posts to hand out. Instead, it has within its ranks an abundance of bitter opponents, rival factions and scores of right-wing populists just waiting to tear each other apart. Election day marked the end of a temporary truce within many of the party's regional organizations. The coming months won't just determine how things go on from here -- they will determine whether things go on at all. Alternative for Germany had initially planned to hold its national convention in early 2014. That plan has now been moved forward to December.

Sights Set on EU Elections

"It's important that the party doesn't fall behind, but starts turning its attention to the EU elections," says Alexander Gauland, a member of Alternative for Germany's executive board. After the European Parliament election in May 2014, the party plans to run for the state parliament elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg -- states where the party won more than five percent of the vote on Sunday.

But one key part of any election is a party's platform, and anti-euro policies are little use at the regional level. Alternative for Germany hasn't reached a consensus on its family, energy, foreign or education policies, much less its tax policy.

And in any case, the party needs to know whether Lucke is staying. He's the only member of the party's national committee who cuts a good figure both on TV and in town squares. He's also the only leader whose authority is unquestioned within the party.

Talk of a 'Cleansing Process'

It was Lucke's shuttle diplomacy and his emailed appeals, often sent at 3 a.m., that got the fractious party's organizations in states such as Hesse, Bavaria or Berlin to make peace -- even if it was a fragile one.

Berlin's regional organization especially was the scene of bitter trench warfare from the start. A newly elected regional committee member was anonymously outed as gay and a newly installed business director was attacked with anti-Semitic slurs. Committee members fought it out in secret meetings.

The Berlin region's leading candidate, economics professor Joachim Starbatty, got a taste on election day of what's in store for him. Late that evening, an elderly, white-haired man cornered Starbatty and tapped him aggressively on the chest. "I supported you for months," the man growled at the baffled candidate. "But if you keep collaborating with those rabble-rousers from the gay dark room scene, my people and I will take action, got it?"

Starbatty drew back, gave an embarrassed smile and tried to placate the irate man. "Thank you for expressing your anger openly," he said. "Let's have a calm talk soon." The man retreated, grumbling.

In trouble spots such as Berlin, just talking might soon may no longer be enough. By the evening of election day, the phrase "cleansing process" was making the rounds. Lucke hopes the party's 4.7 percent success will take the wind out of the sails of some of the gripers. "Otherwise, I'll have to intervene in some cases more decisively than I have so far," the party leader says.

He is all his party has. Without him, the second-tier leaders are powerless. These leaders include "Dr. Adam, Dr. Gauland, Dr. Petry and Professor Starbatty," as Lucke likes to rattle off the names and titles of his highly educated fellow party leaders. Alternative for Germany has seen success primarily because it was founded quickly and run under firm direction from the top. With its powerful leader, strong regional chiefs and hordes of highly motivated volunteers, the party avoided the chaos that has plagued the Pirate Party, another newcomer on Germany's political scene. This set-up made it possible for Alternative for Germany to register for the federal election in all of Germany's states, and to run a successful grassroots campaign.

The total amount of donations that party treasurer Norbert Stenzel says he collected also shows what a wide-spread effect this small party has had in a short period of time -- €4.3 million ($5.8 million) since its foundation, including only two large donations of just under €50,000. When the campaign coffers ran dry shortly before the election, Alternative for Germany made an online appeal for donations. Within just 48 hours, the party received more than half a million euros, once again made up of small contributions.

The party's supporters are certainly heterogeneous. The people celebrating in the Maritim ballroom on Sunday evening are by no means just frustrated retirees. They are young and old, men and women. "Alternative for Germany has turned Germany blue," the campaign manager declared proudly from the stage. "It's no longer possible to imagine the political scene without Alternative for Germany."

Fear of Euro and of Foreigners

An election day poll conducted by German broadcaster ARD showed what Alternative for Germany voters think of the party -- 83 percent of those who voted for the anti-euro party agreed with the statement, "Alternative for Germany doesn't solve any problems, but names them."

Party officials didn't just give voice to their supporters' fears in their election campaign, they practically screamed them. They fear that energy will become too expensive, that savings accounts will see their value eroded, that foreigners will drain Germany's welfare system and Germans will have to work until age the of 67 while Greeks just laze about. In doing so, the party's PhD-holding leaders managed to present themselves as being down to earth, and established politicians as being aloof.

Alternative for Germany's campaign events were akin to group therapy sessions addressing these fears, except that the therapy wasn't aimed at mitigating or healing the problems. Alternative for Germany has no solutions to offer. Rather, it lives by picking apart other parties' solutions.

The pivotal question is whether Alternative for Germany will still be able to reach and motivate voters now that it will be an extra-parliamentary opposition group. The party feels that the success of achieving 4.7 percent of the vote gives it legitimacy, but that still doesn't give it the kind of platform that parliamentary seats would provide. Participation in the Bundestag would have meant guaranteed media exposure and jobs for many of its activists. Without that, the party will remain limited to holding speeches at youth centers and in hotel conference rooms. And it's likely many members will simply return to their normal jobs.

Still, deputy leader Frauke Petry isn't worried that the motivation of party supporters will suffer. "When the euro bailout starts up again, people will turn to Alternative for Germany in droves," she says.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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