MITTWEIDA, Germany — The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) built its base by tapping into the resentments of angry, old white men.
Now, it’s recruiting their sons and grandsons.
At a rally Friday night in Mittweida, a picturesque university town nestled in the rolling hills of Saxony, a state in the former East Germany, the region’s AfD youth leader Rolf Weigand made his pitch to a crowd of about 200. He zeroed in on an issue that triggers deep unease across the east – emigration to western Germany, where millions of east Germans have moved since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We need to keep our young people here in the region,” Weigand, a 35-year-old engineer, told the mostly male crowd. “That will also strengthen our youth associations and our young fire brigades, because they also need young people and this is what we will put ourselves up for.”
“We are not Nazis.” Mike Moncsek, member of the AfD’s executive board in Saxony
Saxony will hold an election for its state parliament on Sunday and the AfD is expected to snag as much as a quarter of the vote, more than doubling its result from the last election held in 2014. The state has been a center of opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policies; though her Christian Democrats (CDU) are expected to hold first place, the AfD is drawing away its voters in droves.
Nationwide, the AfD polls in the low teens. Party leaders say a big part of its success in Saxony and elsewhere in the east is the Young Alternative.
Just how big the youth vote is won’t become clear until Sunday, but if the AfD can prove that it can attract young voters in the east, it will use the same playbook elsewhere in Germany, further destabilizing the political establishment that has dominated the country’s politics for decades.
“The Young Alternative is a very important component within our party,” Alice Weidel, co-leader of the national AfD, told POLITICO at a campaign event last week, adding that the “access to young people” the group provides was invaluable.
Mittweida, a town of about 15,000, whose quaint exterior belies a history of far-right gang violence, is fertile ground for the Young Alternative’s nationalist populism.
At Friday’s rally, a young AfD supporter dressed in a black t-shirt who identified himself as Ollie pressed the candidates on what they would do to keep young people from leaving Mittweida.
“There is not much in terms of youth clubs,” he said, complaining that many young people simply had nothing to do.
Weigand’s fellow candidate, Lars Kuppi, reassured him that the AfD had “recognized the issue” and promised to improve the situation so that “young people don’t spend their spare time at bus stops.”
In fact, youth clubs are a key tool in the Young Alternative’s drive to build support. Many youngsters are reluctant to be openly associated with the far-right party and don’t want to attend its events, Weigand says. The party’s message resonates much more in a club setting “without the public.”
“It’s a model that I find quite interesting and exciting,” Weigand said.
Building future support
The issues driving support for the AfD in Mittweida are familiar. Many here are bitter over Merkel’s refugee policies, which they fear will eventually rob the country of its German identity. And though unemployment has fallen and the region’s economy is healthy, many feel insecure about the future.
A young farmer, who like most AfD supporters declined to give his name, said he would vote for the party because he doesn’t agree with the Green party’s climate policies. (The AfD denies man-made climate change exists.) He said he was worried that the Greens would force him to give up his cattle “just to save the climate,” a red line for him.
No matter how well the AfD does in Sunday’s election, it has no hope of holding power in the state as all other parties have ruled out a coalition with the far right. Still, as the largest opposition party, the AfD will make its influence felt.
And if the Young Alternative succeeds in attracting Saxony’s youth, the party is likely to drive political debate in Germany’s east and beyond for some time to come. The youth movements of Germany’s establishment parties have also played a central role for decades in grooming future leaders.
The prospect of the AfD entrenching itself into the region’s political infrastructure is exactly what worries members of Zukunft Sachsen (Future Saxony), a student group that is campaigning to halt the far-right party’s rise. It’s urging young people to vote for any party but the AfD on Sunday.
Weigand and his colleagues consider such moves little more than scare tactics. Nonetheless, convincing young voters that the AfD isn’t a potentially dangerous force has been the party’s biggest challenge in winning more of the youth vote.
It doesn’t help that parts of the Young Alternative have a reputation for being more radical than the AfD itself. Several state branches have come under surveillance by Germany’s domestic security agency, and even senior AfD members have warned the youth organization to distance itself from the more extreme members in its ranks.
In cities like Dresden and Leipzig, both of which have large student populations, much of the youth supports the Greens, as is the case elsewhere in Germany. Nationwide, the Young Alternative has by far the fewest members of any of the major parties’ youth organizations.
But in rural areas, which are home to most of Saxony’s population, the Young Alternative sees an opening.
“We are not Nazis,” Mike Moncsek, a member of the AfD’s executive board in Saxony, assured the crowd in Mittweida.
Joshua Posaner contributed reporting.