In late January, the future looked bright for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Frauke Petry, the party’s chief, had gathered Europe’s right-wing populists for a summit in the German city of Koblenz, where she appeared on stage with the other leaders of the continent’s populist revolt. To the cheering of the crowd, French presidential candidate and National Front head Marine Le Pen declared that, in 2017, “the people of continental Europe will wake up.”
In Germany, voters do appear to be waking up—but not in the way that Le Pen envisioned. The AfD has lost around one-third of its popular support since January, according to recent polls. If elections were held today, the party would win between 8 and 11 percent of the vote—a steep decline from the 15 percent it registered last December, following a series of successes in regional elections in 2016. This rapid fall from favor stands in stark contrast to the surge in public support that right-wing populists are enjoying elsewhere in Europe, notably in France and the Netherlands. In the midst of a far-reaching populist revolt, Germany has emerged as an exception—at least for now.
Three structural dynamics have fueled the AfD’s crisis, and each promises to be influential beyond the immediate future. The first is the German government’s assumption of tougher migration policies. The political steps that Berlin has taken since July 2015 have been controversial, but they have also significantly reduced the number of refugees arriving in Germany. The refugee deal with Turkey and Berlin’s attempts to conclude similar agreements with North African countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have effectively robbed the AfD of what was once one of the party’s unique selling points: its promise to reduce migrant and refugee inflows. At least for now, Berlin’s measures have largely defused what was long predicted to be the determining factor