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 as many of its lesser imitators since then. Until the AfD came along, many dozens of pretenders had tried to inhabit this territory in postwar Germany’s political landscape, but they all failed, ultimately falling either into the lap of the big-tent Christian Democrats or off the right edge into the swamp of the hardcore xenophobes and neo-Nazis.

The AfD, by contrast, has decorated its frontline with one-time members of the German political establishment who say old-fashioned fiscal conservatism is their passion. One of Lucke’s most-prominent backers is Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former IBM executive, one-time director of Germany’s powerful Federation of German Industries, and current member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). A handful of other respectable, experienced politicians—including a number of familiar faces from the Christian Democrats—have pledged their support to Lucke. Among the party’s founders, for example, are Gerd Robanus and Alexander Gauland, who abandoned Merkel’s party because they were unhappy with her moderate makeover of that party in recent years.

The AfD has hit some bumps. The party has had to deal with multiple gaffes, policy reversals, and bouts of in-fighting—and there will almost certainly be more to come. Angry right-wing currents are obviously lurking beneath the party’s professorial veneer. And a cursory examination of the party’s platform reveals that it is not all that different from those of France’s National Front, the Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party, and their right-wing brethren elsewhere in Europe, although AfD officials’ presentation of their policies is more anodyne.

The AfD’s central argument is that Germany has been a clear victim of the euro crisis, compelled against its will—and all common sense—to continually bail out debt-strapped southern Europeans. The architects of the euro-crisis fixes duped the German public, making it pay for the sins of the free-spending southern Europeans. The only responsible policy for maintaining Germany’s long-term competitiveness on the global market is to push for the dismantling of the eurozone and, eventually perhaps, the reinstatement of the deutschmark. AfD officials admit that for southern Europeans, the common currency has been even more catastrophic—which is why they argue that those countries should be the first to abandon the euro (if not by their own volition, then eventually by Brussels’ decree). The remaining northern Europeans could then lay the groundwork for gradually restoring their own national currencies.

The AfD does not fulminate against the EU as such or Germany’s membership in it. But the party certainly envisions a Germany that sheds its longstanding postwar strategy of serving as a humble, selfless guarantor of European unity and embraces its own self-interest. The party believes that Germany should no longer ignore its immediate needs for the sake of a common European project. “We have to talk openly about German interests,” Lucke says. To some Germans, this sounds like bombastic nationalism. But for others, it seems a justified appeal for Germany to play by the same rules as every other EU member state.

But Germany-first fiscal policies alone can’t account for the party’s success. Indeed, as a single-issue party, the AfD initially got off to a slow start. It wasn’t until the group broadened its scope and adopted an anti-immigrant, law-and-order, and Islamophobic agenda that it began to garner support. Party officials recognized that Merkel’s modernizing reforms within her own party—including the abolishment of military conscription, the embrace of some equal protections for gays and lesbians, support for a minimum wage, the abandonment of nuclear power, and outreach to Muslims in Germany—left many traditional social conservatives searching for an alternative. As for the more crudely nationalistic, beer-hall right, it hadn’t had a viable party in years—not since the Republikaner party dissipated in the early 1990s. The AfD worked out a manifesto that addressed the overriding concern of both groups—protection of the German Volk. The party promised to defend strong family values and Europe’s identity as a white Christian civilization.

Like most populist parties, the AfD is vague on specific policies: It is far more attuned to the public’s emotions than the country’s practical needs. Of course, the AfD tempers its rhetoric to avoid the ire of other parties: Rather than spout classic far-right slogans like “stop mass migration,” the AfD simply says, “Immigration needs clear rules.” But the party’s constituency knows what that means.

The composition of the AfD’s voters confirms what polls have shown for years: Although few Germans openly identify as right wing, many people across the political spectrum harbor illiberal political beliefs. It was no surprise that AfD mainly drew votes from the Christian Democrats and the FDP (knocking the latter out of the eastern German legislature altogether), mopped up the voters of the far-right, and attracted many who had previously not voted at all, including many young people. But the party also drew a surprising number of voters who were previously aligned with both the Social Democrats and, even more so, the Left Party (a democratic socialist makeover of the former East German communist party, which offers its own leftist version of euroskepticism).

Germany’s next regional vote is in early 2015 in Hamburg. If the AfD’s rise continues unabated, Germany’s political playing field will be significantly transformed—with implications for all of Europe. For one, Merkel’s party will have to move boldly to the right to recapture the voters it has lost. Until now, it has tried to portray the AfD as beyond the pale—Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has lashed out at the AfD for propagating xenophobia, dishonestly deploying crime statistics, and denigrating the EU’s internally open borders—but that strategy hasn’t worked. At the least, the AfD’s rise may force Merkel to abandon any attempts to pursue desperately needed immigration reform.

It could also mean an abrupt detour in the career trajectory of Ursula von der Leyen, the popular defense minster and oft-mentioned successor to Merkel. But the party will likely need a more conservative standard-bearer than the petit mother of seven whose main priority over the past year has been to make Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, more family friendly. The problem is that Merkel has so dominated the party during her reign, chasing old-school conservatives away, that there simply aren’t many left in the party. A rightward shift by the Christian Democrats would also mean that the chances of a coalition between it and the Green Party on the national level in 2017 would become very slim.

In fact, the Christian Democrats, who have ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD, might be left without a future coalition partner at all. Their partner of choice had long been the FDP, with whom they governed during much of the 1980s and 1990s and even as recently as 2009–13. But the FDP, which was on the ropes even before the AfD came along, is now facing an existential crisis, after struggling repeatedly to clear the five-percent hurdle to qualify for national and state parliaments. The rise of the AfD surely hammers another nail or two into its coffin, leaving the Christian Democrats and the AfD as the only viable parties on the right side of Germany’s political landscape. Merkel’s only available partner is thus the Social Democrats, in the form of a grand coalition like the one now governing in Berlin. But that would designate the SPD as the country’s new political kingmaker, giving it the option of forming future coalitions with either the Christian Democrats, or with the Greens and the Left Party. This latter constellation recently announced its first regional government in the southeastern state of Thuringia, where the Christian Democrats, despite receiving by far the most votes, were snubbed by the much-weaker SPD. The Social Democrats felt they were offered a better deal on the left—and took it.

The shift on the horizon of German conservatism is particularly worrisome because the German CDU has become the flag-bearer of modern European conservatism. Merkel transformed German conservatism into an ideology concerned more with best practices than with blood and soil; her empirical style of leadership suggested that conservatism could be open-minded, gender-conscious, environmentally-concerned, even feminist. The AfD is unlikely to make public policy in Germany anytime soon, but it is already having an impact by limiting the scope of Merkel’s legacy.