Germany's Polite Populists

The Rapid Rise of Europe's Newest Right-Wing Party

AfD flags in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, September 16, 2013. Fabrizio Bensch / Courtesy Reuters

For years, Germany has enjoyed the noble distinction of being the only major European country without a significant right-wing, anti-euro party. But far from celebrating their country’s sudden status as the continent’s exemplary democracy, many German observers suffered from a certain degree of angst. It was only a matter of time, they believed, before a talented populist—someone charismatic, highly educated, and professionally accomplished—found a formula that appealed to the German public. After all, surveys have consistently shown that Germans are just as likely to harbor EU-antagonistic, foreigner-unfriendly, and Islamophobic sentiments as their counterparts in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe, where right-wing parties regularly capture up to a quarter of the vote—and even join coalition governments.

Those premonitions have now been fulfilled. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) burst onto Germany’s political stage this year by winning ten percent of the vote or slightly more in three regional elections in eastern Germany and seven percent in the EU parliament election this spring. Founded in 2013, the AfD now regularly polls over ten percent in country-wide surveys, even though it has yet to breach the Bundestag. (In last year’s national election, it barely missed clearing the five-percent hurdle to enter parliament.) It’s clear that the phenomenon of the AfD isn’t a flash-in-the-pan. It may never govern directly, but is sure to have a profound impact on German politics. 

The party owes its breakthrough to its unlikely leader, Bernd Lucke. Lucke—a squeaky-clean 52-year-old father of five and professor of economics from Hamburg—has managed to articulate a style of national populism perfectly suited to the constraints of German politics. He has positioned the AfD to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and at the same time kept the party at a long arm’s length from the sort of crude nationalism that recalls the beer-hall rabble-rousing that accompanied the Nazis’ disastrous rise to power in the twentieth century—as well

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