Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Germany, AfD, and the Democracy Delusion

Representatives of Germany’s two most powerful establishment parties are comfortable publicly expressing the view that a popular rival should be suppressed.

Credit: De Visu

German populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is enjoying unprecedented support.

Recent polls show as much as 21 percent of the German electorate would support the party, which would secure it the second-highest number of seats in the Bundestag. This comes as Germans contend with inflation, mounting pressure in the energy and real estate sectors, and a perception that the migration crisis in Germany is getting worse.


Rather than engaging with the populists, as in Sweden, or incorporating parts of their platform, as in Denmark, the German political establishment speaks of banning the outsider rivals.

Last week, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, legally barred from pronouncements on party politics, ominously declared, “The constitution cannot encompass those who are enemies of the constitution,” sparking the recent debate. German law allows suppression of a party or its members on the charge of “seek[ing] to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order” of the German state.

Last year, a court ruled the party could be a potential threat to democracy, paving the way for surveillance by the state security services. Thomas Haldenwang, who heads Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has publicly condemned AfD and stated he would explore a legal avenue to enact a ban. A column in Der Spiegel asserted, “It’s time to defend democracy with sharper weapons.”

Saskia Esken, co-leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), recently proclaimed AfD harbors “anti-democratic aims” and “should be banned” if it can be proven. Marco Wanderwitz, a former portfolio minister in Angela Merkel’s government and member of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party faction, opined that AfD meets the requirements for a ban and that such a measure would give “democracy breathing space.” CDU boss Friedrich Merz promised no cooperation with AfD, even at the local level.

Representatives of Germany’s two most powerful establishment parties are comfortable publicly expressing the view that a popular rival should be suppressed. Vague on details of what AfD behavior is so dangerous to democracy, these establishment voices deploy time-tested 1933 scare-rhetoric that few are willing to question.


These developments in Germany parallel Brazil’s banning of former President Jair Bolsonaro from holding office as well as the seemingly endless quest to do likewise to former President Donald Trump in the United States. Meanwhile, in Poland, the conservative ruling government employed a similar tactic and experienced predictably different reactions from the international community.

After the announcement of a commission to investigate Russian interference in Polish government—one that could ban guilty politicians from office for up to ten years, and presumably would implicate former Prime Minister and President of the European Council, and current opposition leader, Donald Tusk—Western media and political elites erupted with cries of “democratic backsliding” and “McCarthyism.” The fallout provided immeasurable free publicity to the opposition ahead of this fall’s election, and President Andrzej Duda ultimately called for a softening of the law’s language.

Attentive international observers must reject this blatant double-standard and authoritarian behavior. Talking points over fringe AfD supporters and “1933” discourse obscure the critical larger picture: the “rules” of these political maneuverings are not based on any logical or legal frameworks, but on the ideology of the actors in question. Dissent by the right on key globalist tenets like migration results in a woefully uneven playing field, if not outright expulsion from public life. This reality is on display everywhere from Brasilia to Berlin to Budapest.

Since AfD’s inception in 2013, opponents have branded it as extremist. Rare is the article that doesn’t categorize the party as “far right.” Yet, the party platform echoes those of similar European populists. Its first platform point calls for “direct democracy, separation of powers and the rule of law.” Its much-decried position on Islam calls for bans on full public veiling and foreign funding and operation of mosques, provisions that already exist in other European countries. The party’s assertions that multiculturalism and the European Union are failed projects (Merkel herself admitted the former) might be intolerable in Europe’s halls of power, but they are hardly extreme among average Europeans.

Some German politicians support a more nuanced view of the party. “This dogmatic way in Berlin of excluding the AfD, saying they are all Nazis, is wrong,” said Matthias Grahl, a CDU leader in Bautzen, near the Czech border. After observing the Danish Social Democratic Prime Minister win on a platform of immigration control, former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel wrote, “Mette Frederiksen has shown that the Socialists can win elections if they stand for a clear policy. The German comrades are far from it.”

Germany is still coming to terms with the admission of 1.2 million migrants—mostly young, male, and Muslim—during the migration crisis of 2015-16. The decision to admit them is one Merkel made without key government ministers, let alone the public; then-Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble later likened Germany’s response to an avalanche triggered by a “careless skier.” It remains the elephant in the room in any discussion on AfD, and in German politics generally, and establishment politicians have sought to ignore it.

Yet, simply consider the scale of Merkel’s unilateral decision in 2015. It permanently transformed German society and, effectively, the continent. Not only did Merkel not have to put this decision before voters; years later, expressing civic dissatisfaction remains fanciful, as no establishment German party offers an alternative to the former chancellor’s “Wir schaffen das” proclamation. Disenfranchised from mainstream politics, AfD voters, and similarly minded citizens of other European countries, could be forced to express their frustrations outside the political process, a development that benefits nobody.

They may soon lose their voice in the Bundestag, but perhaps they can derive some small satisfaction from an artist willing to say what politicians and journalists won’t.

“When people got tired of [a center-left candidate],” writes Michel Houellebecq in his 2015 novel Submission, in which France’s political establishment thrusts the country into the Islamic world, “we’d witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the center-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”

Houellebecq is frequently touted as something of an oracle, as well as one of the West’s bitterest cynics. The fifth—or more—of German voters facing disenfranchisement have reason to commend him on both counts.