Last weekend, AfD leader Alexander Gauland gave a lecture at a “winter school” organised by the Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS). The IfS is a far-right think whose state aim it is to form the future elite of far-right leaders. If you think that leader of Germany’s biggest opposition party being part of such a thing is a big deal, you’re right. The story got little coverage in Germany and no coverage internationally, so I made a 90 second explainer video. If you like it, please share it.
Andre Poggenburg, a prominent hardliner from Saxony-Anhalt, has left the AfD. He has already founded a new party. What does that mean for the AfD and German politics in general? I’ve made a short explainer video. Or, if you’re not the visual type, you can read an old-fashioned post on the latest breakaway from the AfD.
Today, German public radio interviewed Klaus-Peter Schöppner, a well-known pollster, who claimed that the party could benefit “from throwing out the extrepmists”. This is exactly the spin the AfD is trying to put on the whole affair. They claim that they are getting rid of a problematic, bumbling character who would take his few and equally deranged supporters with him.
When you recognise the framing for what it is
Nothing could be further from the truth. Other leading members of the vökisch wing had sidelined Poggenburg more than a year ago over his gaffes and petty affairs. And these guys show no inclination whatsoever to leave the party. On the contrary, they will continue to shape the AfD in their image.
Björn Höcke, the most prominent of them, was re-elected as leader in Thuringia less than two months ago and is the party’s frontrunner for the state election in October 2019. Andreas Kalbitz became Gauland’s successor as state party leader in Brandenburg. Last week, he was confirmed as the frontrunner for the state election in September 2019. Jens Maier, the former judge who tried to silence our colleague Steffen Kaillitz, is a sitting MP. Hans-Thomas Tillschneider is a state MP in Saxony and will likely be re-elected come September. And the list goes on.
They cultivate links to the Pegida movement and to the Identitarians. They attend seminars run by New Right pseudo-intellectuals and dream of a “meta-political” transformation of German society. They were a driving force behind the AfDs’s metamorphosis to a Radical Right party, and it is unlikely that they will stop at that.
This morning, I woke up to the news that Andre Poggenburg, former leader of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt and former chair of the AfD’s delegation in the state parliament is now also a former member of the AfD. And thanks to @TheDanHough, I quickly learned that he has already set up his own party: “Awakening of German Patriots – Central Germany” (AdP). In other words, they are playing our special song. Once more, with feeling.
The AfD and Bruce Springsteen. You would have to ask @BDStanley what it means.
While most European Populist Radical Right parties shy away from traditional right-wing extremism and draw a (sometimes thin) line between themselves and those who openly campaign against democratic values and principles, the Eastern chapters of the AfD are remarkably relaxed in this respect. As early as 2015, Höcke voiced sympathy for not just voters but also for members of the right-wing extremist NPD. On other occasions, he has shown thinly veiled support for biological racism and has demanded that Germany performs a “U-turn” with respect to its attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past. Whenever Höcke came under fire from more moderate characters in the party, Poggenburg rose to his defence.
Poggenburg’s political positions and style are hardly different from Höcke’s. For years, the two men were allies, and perhaps even friends. But more recently, Poggenburg became a bit of an embarrassment, and his political star began to sink. His power grabs, his iron-fist approach to intra-party opposition and his chaotic, undisciplined leadership put off many party members in Saxony-Anhalt. As early as 2016, it emerged that Poggenburg, who was a small business owner before becoming a full-time politician, had not paid back money that he owed and had hidden from the bailiffs on several occasions. In 2017 Poggenburg was accused of nepotism when it became known that the AfD employs his girlfriend as a trainee Click To Tweet. All in all, he is not exactly a model law-and-order politician. And so Poggenburg lost first his influence within the Eastern right-wing circles, then his seat on the national executive (in 2017), and finally, in 2018, his leadership positions in Saxony-Anhalt.
Trump on Poggenburg (source: https://tenor.com/view/no-one-loves-aloser-unloveable-loser-donald-trump-our-cartoon-president-gif-11428270)
His real problem, however, is that he lacks Höcke’s air of pseudo-intellectualism and does neither understand the concept of (im)plausible deniability nor the need for tactical moderation. In various states and at the federal level, authorities are currently pondering the question whether the AfD is an extremist party and should hence come under surveillance by the secret service. Such a move would not just be inconvenient but would put off many voters and would probably lead to a mass exodus of members who fear for their careers. Because of this threat, the national leadership is consulting with constitutional lawyers and has compiled a list of words and phrases that should be avoided because they are too obviously beyond the democratic pale.
Poggenburg baulked at this. He complained, without apparent irony, about a “lurch to the left” within the AfD. He began using a blue cornflower as his header image on social media, a symbol that was used by anti-semitic parties in Austria and Germany in the 19th century and became the shibboleth of the then-illegal Nazi party in pre-1938 Austria. And finally, he Poggenburg kicked off 2019 by sending “patriotic well-wishes” to the “Volksgemeinschaft” Click To Tweet (the community of the people)- a Nazi-era term that was used to legitimise first the exclusion, then the murder of Jews, socialists, communists, homosexuals, Roma, and anyone else who did not fit into the totalitarian vision of German society.
A couple of years ago, that might have been worth a half-hearted explanation (“I misstyped …”), but in the current climate, the national executive decided to ban Poggenburg from holding party offices for two years. And so the man left, then made his announcement, all just in time for a slow-news Friday and for the upcoming AfD party conference.
What are the likely consequences of this split?
Glad that you ask. The AfD has previous form for de-facto splits. In 2015 and 2017, the respective leaders left and went on to set-up their own parties: Lucke’s ALFA (now LKR) and Petry’s Blue Party. Ironically, both were self-styled moderates that broke with the AfD over its radicalisation (that they had furthered, up to a point). Poggenburg, on the other hand, is a true radical who leaves over the party’s alleged moderation.
Sometimes a flower is not just a flower
Three and a half year down the line, ALFA/LKR is dead in the water. The Blue Party looks pretty blue on the national level (could not resist – sorry), but may play a role in the upcoming election in Saxony, where it has a small parliamentary presence due to defections from the AfD. But by and large, there seems to be no demand for an entirely moderate AfD: voters can simply return to the centre-right, especially now that Merkel’s chancellorship is coming to a close.
Poggenburg’s AdP is a completely different proposition. He is aiming for East Germany (or Central Germany in his parlance) only, and he Poggenburg plans to out-AfD the AfD in the German East Click To Tweet elections of 2019. That could work if Eastern voters were of the opinion that the AfD is indeed lurching to the left, selling out, etc., etc., etc. But so far, the AfD’s numbers in the polls look pretty solid. The Eastern state party chapters already operate to the right of most Western chapters. They have access to state funding that their parliamentary presence has earned them, they have party machines in place, and they have a cohort of reasonably seasoned politicians. Poggenburg, on the other hand, has all the experience of winning an election, then blowing it.
It’s early days still (the first day, actually), but so far, Poggenburg has only convinced two semi-prominent right-wingers to jump ship and join his new outfit. With this small team, he is mainly gunning for the small-ish group of voters that have previously supported the NPD. But even these voters might still find the AfD reasonably attractive and will be reluctant to potentially waste their vote. In 2019, the AfD is an established brand whereas the AdP, which has adopted the cornflower symbol, looks like a radicalised knock-off lead by a man who has previously overestimated his political capital by a considerable margin.
A year ago, I wrote a slightly maudlin blog about the good and the not-so-good reasons for solo-blogging in this time and age. Good reasons or not, I kept up the good work with 35 blogs in 2018. That is a bit less than my long-term annual average, but Chapeau to my good self nonetheless.
But what were the most popular (used in a strictly relative sense) posts on the blog in 2018? Here is your handy guide:
#10 Sampling from a Multinomial Distribution in Stata Who hasn’t found themselves in the situation where they want to sample from a multinomial distribution (IRONY KLAXON!)? It’s easily done in R. In Stata, you have to go through a few hoops. This short 2011 post is still reasonably popular, seven years down the line, because it tells you how you do it.
#6 A few thoughts on the framing of the AfD’s result in Bavaria In the Bavaria state election in October 2018, the AfD did actually less well than many had expected. But to the party’s immense delight, many journalists remained in full democratic-crisis mode. I disagree with that, for reasons.
#5 Three and a half Special Issues on (Right-Wing) populism. And then two more 2018 was a horrible year for the world, and hence a good year for Radical Right/Populism research. It showed early on, i.e. in January, with a number of special issues on the topic.
Back in August, Franziska Schreiber made quite a splash with her memoir of the four years she spent inside Germany’s not-so-new-anymore Radical Right party. Schreiber was in her mid-twenties when she joined only weeks after the party was founded. She helped building up the AfD’s youth organisation – controversial even within the party – in the key state of Saxony and became a confidant of Frauke Petry, the former party leader. Appalled by the AfD’s radicalisation (to which she has contributed, albeit on a small scale), Schreiber left the party just before the 2017 federal election. Reviews of her inside story were mixed, but hey, does this sound like the perfect complement to a long day on the beach? Turns out the book is light and short reading, so here are my five random observations to cap off the day.
Cheap opening shot: confidants were allowed to call Petry “little star” (a common term of affection in German). Yes, you read that right. A few pages later, we learn that Schreiber had a bit of a crush on Petry. No big surprise here.
Schreiber estimates that in 2017, Neo-Nazis made up 15 per cent of the membership, whereas” liberals” comprised 50 per cent. The first number looks a bit off to me while the second number seems way too high. But she’s the insider, right?
Schreiber mostly writes about individuals, and from the point of view of one of many warring factions. That makes for juicy bits and potentially dodgy analyses. But she’s adamant that the rank-and-file’s continous shift to the right has forced various people within the leadership to become ever more radical, lest they lose their credibility with the party faithful.
She also claims that many in the AfD now aim for a revolutionary transformation, something that seems more plausible now than it did before the Chemnitz events.
Schreiber (who apparently has some background in Political/Social Science) describes her own trajectory like an induction into a cult – the alienation from family and former friends, the confirmation biases, the gradual shifting of what is considered normal – it’s all there. This perspective may provide her current self with a very convenient excuse for things she did in the past and now regrets, but it’s nonetheless credible. She also highlights the importance of internal & external communication via social media, and the force of negative emotions, and something that squares with the motives of the AfD’s voters.
And yes, there is the famous claim that the now former boss of Germany’s secret service advised Petry as to how to avoid the attention of his people.
So, all in all, this book provides some interesting background on persons and events, but nothing that is exactly new.
The other day, an American journalist wanted to talk about the Sweden Democrat’s role in the upcoming Swedish election. Being no country specialist, I tried to deflect the request, but he sent me some more specific questions anyway, which I tried to answer to the best of my abilities.
Unsurprisingly, I provided too much detail, so my comments disappeared from the published piece. Since it is Friday afternoon and all the stuff is on file anyway, for your edification, here’s our virtual conversation:
Would you characterize the Sweden Democrats as a radical right party? How similar are they to other radical right parties in Europe? What is different about them?
Yes, I the Sweden Democrats fit well into the family of Radical Right parties that have emerged in most West European countries since the 1980s. The most unusual thing about the SD is perhaps that they started out as a pretty militant group, with uniforms reminiscent of the 1930s. Many modern European Radical Right parties have carefully avoided this association from the start.
It seems to me that the Sweden Democrats have done a lot of “soften” their image, with their flowery logo and the party leader’s choice of clothes. Is this something you would agree with? Is this something other radical right parties have adopted?
That’s correct. The new-ish leadership has banned the uniforms, purged the ranks of Neo Nazis, and replaced the fierce Viking warrior of their original logo with a flower. Their relatively moderate appeal is very much in line with other Radical Right parties.
How important is this election in Sweden in determining the future of the European Union?
For the time being, no other party will form a coalition with the SD, so their likely success will have no direct short-term impact on the EU. However, having a strong Radical Right party in the Swedish parliament will make it more difficult to form a stable government and will likely lead to Swedish mainstream parties adopting more nationalist and restrictive positions.
Do you think the Sweden Democrats are further evidence of a rising tide of nationalism across Europe? What is behind this rise? Immigration? Neo-liberal economic policies? Economic hardships? Changes in society?
Radical Right Parties that poll between 10 and 25 per cent are now a fact of political life in most West European countries, and in all likelihood, these parties will also do well in the 2019 EP elections, where the barriers to entry are particularly low. One important but often overlooked factor behind this rise is dealignment, i.e. the slow but steady decline of the long standing ties between large social groups such as workers, farmers, or religious groups on the one hand and traditional parties on the other. Through dealignment, voters have become available for new parties including, but not limited to, the Radical Right.
One second important point to note is that the Radical Right vote is driven by perceptions of migration as an economic and cultural threat. While these perceptions are by no means confined to the Radical Right’s electorate, they seem to constitute a necessary pre-condition for Radical Right support: unless someone is seriously worried about immigration, it is highly unlikely that they would ever vote for the Radical Right. Third, economic decline plays a role, but many Radical Right voters are relatively well of themselves. What worries them is a feeling that their native compatriots get less than they deserve, that the country is going into a negative direction because of immigration, and the (often irrational) fear that immigration might hurt their own economic prospects in the future. It is also worth noting that the Radical Right is particularly strong in the rich and stable countries of Scandinavia and in Austria and Switzerland, whereas it is surprisingly weak in crisis-hit Greece and nonexistent in Spain and Portugal.
Here’s a question unrelated to Sweden … How significant of a role do you think Steve Bannon can play in Europe?
Bannon plays no role whatsoever. Populist Radical Right Parties have thrived in Europe since the 1980s. International co-operation amongst them has proven difficult time and again because of their inherently nationalist agendas, but they were quite good at learning from each other and swapping ideas long before Bannon began his European tour. In my view, Bannon hugely overplays his influence in Europe, and American media sometimes fall for his spiel.
Hey twitter, the CSU’s current anti-refugee line may be inspired by rise of AfD and upcoming elections, but it is hardly new. Lubbers et al. 2002 report (for the 1990s) that the CSU was responsible for Germany having one of the most restrictive “anti-immigrant climates” in Western Europe, that the CSU they were the most anti-immigrant Christian Democratic party in the sample, and that they outscored the Italian AN (then still a borderline case for Radical Right membership).