From anti-EU to anti-immigration
When it was formed in 2013, the AfD's main thrust was its opposition to bailouts of indebted European Union member states like Greece. But over time, it has become, first and foremost, an anti-immigration party. A recent study by the prestigious Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that this issue is the only one on which the party possesses significant appeal.
The AfD completely rejects Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy toward refugees, particularly from the Arab world, which has seen more than 1.5 million migrants arrive in Germany since 2015. The party wants to change Germany’s constitution to get rid of the right to an individual hearing in asylum cases and would seek to immediately deport all those whose applications to remain in Germany are rejected, regardless of whether the countries to which deportees are sent back are safe or not. It also advocates foreigners who commit crimes in Germany being sentenced to prisons outside the country and treating minors as young as 12 as adults for certain offenses.
The AfD wants to seal the EU's borders, institute rigorous identity checks along Germany's national borders and set up holding camps abroad to prevent migrants from leaving for Germany in the first place. Although nominally favoring a targeted immigration policy along the Canadian model, lead candidate Alice Weidel has said the party wants to achieve "negative immigration" to Germany. It also argues that Germany is being "Islamified" and portrays itself as a bulwark for traditional Christian values.
The party is generally regarded to be split between "moderate" and "far-right" wings, the latter of which shades over into ethnic and even racist nationalism. The party’s most recognizable figure is the "moderate" Frauke Petry. But the party co-chairwoman has been somewhat marginalized due to legal problems as well as her taking time off to have her fifth child. On September 26, two days after the AfD won 94 seats in the Bundestag, Petry announced that she would quit the party.
The party's lead candidates are a study in opposites. Representing the "far-right" faction is 76-year-old Alexander Gauland, a lawyer and journalist who was a member of Merkel's conservative CDU for 40 years. The "moderate" faction is personified by 38-year-old economist Alice Weidel, who lives at least part-time in Switzerland with her female partner and two children.
Up, down and up in the polls
After taking over 20 percent of the vote in regional elections in 2016 in the immediate wake of the refugee "crisis," the party saw its fortunes decline in this year's state votes, getting less than ten percent in Saarland and North-Rhine Westphalia.
But that may have had to do with the fact that those elections were all held in western Germany, and not in the formerly communist east, where the AfD has its main strongholds . The AfD took over 12 percent of the national vote in the general election on September 24 to become the third largest force in German politics.
Provocation and then moderation?
The AfD is often accused of pursuing a strategy whereby one of the "far-right" members breaks a social taboo with an outlandish, offensive statement only for a "moderate" member to qualify his or her colleague’s remarks.
Gauland, in particular, is known for pushing verbal boundaries, calling for the government's integration commissioner, a Turkish-German born in Hamburg, to be "disposed of" in Anatolia. He has also said Germany should be proud of its soldiers in both world wars. The role of voice of reason usually falls to Weidel, who said of the former statement that she disagreed with Gauland’s choice of words but supported the sentiment behind it. Nonetheless, she too attracted criticism when an email surfaced in which she seemed to make racist remarks. Gauland has been officially reported to the police for incitement to violence for his incendiary remarks, but they will likely serve to reinforce support for the AfD on the far right.
Right-wing populism or a new home for neo-Nazism?
There is no absolute consensus about how to describe the AfD as a political phenomenon, other than as a party well to the right of the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, after Merkel moved the conservatives significantly toward the center.
It appeals both to the right-wing extremist fringe and to people dissatisfied with the status quo who may or may not have previously participated in the electoral system. Some experts have talked of a "radicalization of the center." Studies have suggested that the AfD has siphoned off supporters from all of Germany's established mainstream parties, and it currently boasts more than 23,000 members. Thus, some commentators see the rise of the party as part of the same populist international trend that saw voters in the UK approve the Brexit referendum and Americans elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.
The official AfD platform says that the party supports direct democracy, separation of state powers and the rule of law and order, but throughout its short history, critics have accused individual members of promoting neo-Nazi ideas and using neo-Nazi language. Detractors say that the party follows a strategy of targeted breaks with anti-Nazi taboos in an attempt to appeal to right-wing extremists. Local leader Björn Höcke, for instance, held a speech in the eastern city of Dresden, which many considered to have Nazi overtones and content.
The rise of the AfD has, in any case, coincided with the decline of far-right parties like the NPD into virtual insignificance. Nonetheless, the Interior Ministry has said it doesn't regard the AfD as unconstitutional, and the party is not kept under constant surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Family, Pegida and the press
The AfD also sees itself as a defender of the traditional nuclear family model. It is anti-abortion and, despite Weidel's prominent role, hostile to "alternative" lifestyles. It favors a series of measures that would increase state financial support for traditional families and is, in this respect, not fiscally conservative.
The AfD is often conflated in the public mind with the anti-immigration Pegida movement, which holds regular demonstrations in Dresden. While there's no doubt that there is considerable overlap in terms of political attitudes and supporters, Pediga is a citizens' initiative, not a party, and the AfD has always viewed it with unease. In May 2016, the party's national executive decided that AfD members should not appear at Pegida events and vice versa - but that position has been reversed by the party's right wing.
Like Donald Trump or Brexit leader Nigel Farage, the leaders of the AfD display a conspicuous hostility toward the mainstream media. The AfD favors doing away with the licensing fees that underwrite Germany's public television and radio stations, and journalists are regularly excluded from party events. Reporters who call the press hotline at the party's headquarters to request information often get a pre-recorded message telling them to "try again later."