Who is Olaf Henkel, and why does his resignation matter?
Last week, Hans-Olaf Henkel, one of the party’s MEPs, resigned from the national leadership because he is unhappy with the right-wing tendencies (“Rechtsruck”) in the party. In the past, the man himself has been no stranger to allegations of being a right-winger, but by and large he was a “reputational shield” for the party. For years, would-be party founders of new right-wing alternative vehicles had courted him, and when he finally joined the AfD, the former Vice President of IBM, former president of the powerful German Industry Federation and former president of the Leibniz association of non-university research institutes, brought a lot of political, social, and financial capital to the party (bad pun alert). Together with Lucke, he was the most prominent face of the pro-business, market-liberal tendency in the party, and so his resignation was greeted with glee by Alexander Gauland, one of the eastern big wigs of the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam persuasion, who suggested that Henkel should leave the party for good. Henkel in turn managed to exclude Marcus Pretzell from the AfD MEP group for leaking internal documents (i.e.e less-than-friendly emails) to Politico.
In NRW, Pretzell’s deputy resigned after he failed to unseat Pretzell. In Thuringia, Björn Höcke refused to sign an affidavit regarding his alleged ties to the right-wing extremist NPD. The national leadership threatened to retaliate with – what? Patricia Casale (one of the lesser known members) also resigned from the national board, saying she had no choice left. Money is still missing from the war chest. The party conference in June will be great fun even by AfD standards.
Germany’s AfD: The outlook
The crux of the matter is that for the last two years, the AfD has been playing to two different audiences. Even the “liberal” wing around Lucke is right-wing in more than one sense of the word, but they have been anxious to avoid contamination by the images and issues of the Extreme Right, drawing support from former CDU and FDP voters. The “conservative” wing, on the other hand, quickly realised that the party attracted voters who should not have supported them had they read the chiefly market-liberal 2014 manifesto, and so began playing the xenophobic tune in the Eastern state election campaigns. This cannot go on. My money (and I have been wrong in these matters in the most embarrassing ways) is on a party split over the next 12 months or so, and I’m sure no wing will survive alone.