The Far Right Might Become Germany's Main Opposition Party

As Chancellor Angela Merkel looks to form a government, the anti-Islam AfD stands to gain.

Just weeks after becoming the first German far-right party to enter parliament in over half a century, Alternative for Germany could also soon become the country’s main opposition party.

It’s a scenario that most Germans and political parties had hoped to avoid, and one that initially seemed unlikely as Chancellor Angela Merkel pursued a coalition government with several smaller parties in the weeks following Germany’s September election.

But last week, Merkel’s coalition talks fell through, plunging Germany into a rare period of uncertainty. Rather than celebrating the emergence of the so-called “Jamaica coalition,” the chancellor was forced to change course and seek another “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats ― a deal that would leave the far-right AfD as the largest party outside of the ruling government.

It would be a huge symbolic victory for the AfD, and the new position would give it a major platform for its anti-Islam and anti-immigration policies. It would also boost the AfD’s populist narrative that it’s the only party in Germany that offers a real departure from the status quo. 

“They really will be able to present themselves, not just in their own eyes but the eyes of the parliament, as the alternative to the government,” said Sheri Berman, a professor of politics at Barnard College.

Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, poses for a photo on Nov. 23.
Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, poses for a photo on Nov. 23.

A Disturbing Shift In German Politics

That a far-right party would become Germany’s main opposition force would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, as the country has largely rejected far-right movements since World War II. But the rapid ascent of the AfD, which capitalized on growing hostility toward establishment parties and perceived threats to German identity from the refugee crisis, has marked a historic shift in the nation.

Some polls indicate that the party continues to gain support, despite political opposition, internal strife and several scandals. 

The AfD drew widespread criticism for its first proposal in the Bundestag ― a plan for Germany to negotiate a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to send war refugees back to the country they’d fled. 

On Monday, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also reported that a senior member of the AfD owned a company that produced anti-Semitic videos for an extreme-right political party in the early 2000s.

“The fear is that if there are new elections that AfD may actually increase their support and number of seats,” said Charlotte Galpin, deputy director of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham. “Concern about the AfD is perhaps one driver of the need to form a coalition and find a solution.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has struggled to form a coalition government following her September election win.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has struggled to form a coalition government following her September election win.

Few Other Options For Merkel

Although Merkel’s talks with the Social Democrats are still in the early stages, the reality is that there aren’t many remaining paths to forming a government other than a return to the grand coalition.

Merkel could form a minority government, holding the most seats but not joining with another party to gain an overall majority, and selectively work with other parties to pass policies while icing out the far right. But there’s a bias in Germany against minority governments, Berman says ― and with seven parties in parliament, the options for other types of majority government are difficult. 

A poll released last Monday found that a majority of Germans would favor another election over a minority government. However, surveys show that voters’ attitudes have remained about the same as in the previous vote, and there’s little indication that a new election would break the political deadlock. 

In the meantime, the AfD appears happy to sit on the sidelines and enjoy Merkel’s struggles.

“They benefit from any instability because it stops the government from forming and getting down to business, and it potentially makes other party leaders and parties look weaker,” Berman said.

The AfD stands to benefit from either taking on the role of opposition or potentially gaining seats in another vote. The party is also continuing its calls for Merkel to step down, saying she has “failed.”

But the majority of voters still want Merkel as chancellor, and she has no clear replacement ― which suggests that despite the AfD’s rhetoric and cracks emerging in Germany’s prized political stability, Merkel is likely to overcome the current crisis. The public reaction to her next government, though, will be a barometer for the country’s political future.