Like many other far-right political parties, Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded on outrage. It began as a response to the anger and fear some Germans felt when their stable and secure currency, the Deutsche Mark, was subsumed by the euro. It grew in popularity as it shifted its attention to immigration, and peaked when it attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow a record number of asylum seekers into Germany.
In 2017, the AfD won 94 seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag. It became the country's third-largest political party and the official opposition to the centrist coalition government. The AfD's supporters and enemies alike expected the party might grow even stronger in the next election, in 2021.
The pandemic of 2020 changed all that.
After polling around 15% for most of 2019, the AfD's support plummeted this year. The latest surveys show it polling at around 9%.
At first glance, this decline has a simple explanation. Like governments elsewhere, Germany's ruling centrist coalition gained support as it confronted the coronavirus. Public approval of Merkel herself skyrocketed.
Uwe Witt, an AfD member of the Bundestag, tells NPR the government stole the AfD's thunder.
"The main topics of the AfD — such as a greater stress on German national interests, closed European external borders, support of local small and medium-sized industry — were temporarily realized by the government during the corona pandemic," he says. "That is why opposition parties always have polling losses in a crisis."
But there is more behind the AfD's current crisis.
The AfD has made a significant U-turn in its approach to the pandemic. In March, the party's parliamentary leader, Alexander Gauland, was complimentary about the Merkel-led government's handling of the crisis. "Government policy contains many insights that we believe are correct and that we share," Gauland told the Bundestag. Seven months later, though, he described the government as a "corona dictatorship" with a "war cabinet" attacking the basic rights and freedoms of the German people.
The AfD's attempts to reposition itself have exposed deep splits in the party and its leadership, and confusion about what its policies really are.
"Right at the beginning of the pandemic, the AfD even criticized the federal government for not fighting the pandemic consistently enough," says political scientist Ursula Münch of Munich University. "But since the AfD always strives for a unique selling point in political competition, it quickly decided to take a completely different course."
For some AfD members, that new course meant cozying up to the Querdenker ("lateral thinker") movement — a loose grouping of libertarians, vaccination opponents and conspiracy theorists that has steadily gained support for its protest rallies against government health restrictions and lockdowns.
A significant section of the AfD holds similar views. A recent poll showed that 24% of AfD supporters believe the "pandemic is a conspiracy to oppress people."
Münch says the embrace of the Querdenker movement has hurt the AfD among its usual supporters. "The 'moderate' former AfD voters, who voted for the party mainly because they rejected Angela Merkel's refugee policy, are obviously not looking to be ruled by populist gamblers," she says.
Undeterred, some AfD members have continued to push the new agenda, encouraging supporters to describe face coverings as "a muzzle" and attacking government health restrictions as arbitrary and inconsistent. Some data on the spread of the virus suggests Germany's recent spike in COVID-19 infections is particularly severe in areas with a high proportion of AfD voters, although health experts caution that any apparent link needs a lot more research.
Matters came to a head in November, while the Bundestag discussed the government's latest legislation aimed at controlling the pandemic as protesters tussled with police outside the parliament. Two AfD representatives invited some militant "guests" into the building, who then harassed and harangued other members of the Bundestag, including ministers.
The episode was condemned by all the other parties and led to a rare apology from the AfD leadership.
During the AfD's convention, also in November, its co-leader Jörg Meuthen criticized the right wing of the party, its proximity to the Querdenker movement and use of the term "corona dictatorship." Gauland later claimed that Meuthen had rejected half the party with his speech.
At this point, there are two wings of the AfD fighting each other, says Münch. "Some want to get out of the ungrateful role of the opposition and participate in government," she explains. "The others despise this accommodation of the system they hate and want to become more radical."
Münch predicts the AfD will perform significantly worse in next fall's election than it did in 2017.
"Although the relatively small group of hardcore AfD supporters remains set," she says, "more moderate voters could be deterred by the party's quarrels and self-centeredness."
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