A far-right German wolf dons sheep’s clothing

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BRAUNSCHWEIG, Germany — Meet the kinder, gentler Alternative for Germany.

The anti-immigrant populist party known as the AfD elected a new leadership duo over the weekend that it hopes will convince Germans the far-right movement is just like most of them — moderate and middle class.

Party delegates reelected economist Jörg Meuthen as co-leader and also backed Tino Chrupalla, a 44-year-old professional house painter from eastern Germany.

In a party riven by factions rooted in both geography (west versus east) and ideology (social conservatism versus race-based nationalism), the selection of the two men is notable because both are considered to be moderates within the far-right spectrum.

In the run-up to the election, neither of the men, both of whom faced extremist challengers, was viewed as a shoo-in. That delegates ended up backing both of them signals that the party, including adherents of the nationalist wing, has united behind a strategy to present the AfD as bürgerlich, a German adjective used to describe middle-class values.

By seeking to present itself as a plain vanilla middle class force, the AfD believes it can shake its extremist reputation and draw in more voters. Longer term, it hopes that strategy will help it win the acceptance of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the dominant center-right force in Germany that has so far ruled out any type of cooperation with the upstart rightists.

Nationally, the AfD is polling at about 15 percent, slightly better than where it was in the last federal election in 2017.

That’s less crazy than it may sound. While the CDU is adamant that it won’t cooperate with the AfD, the party’s recent electoral successes speak for themselves. In a state election in Saxony this fall, the party won 27.5 percent, finishing second behind the CDU. To avoid cooperating with the AfD, the CDU is trying to cobble together an unwieldy three-way tie-up with the Social Democrats and the Greens, hardly their ideological cousins. The danger for the CDU is that pursuing such coalitions of opposites, which they’ve done in other states as well, will send their conservative voters into the arms of the AfD.

That said, there’s plenty of reason to conclude that the AfD’s claim to being bürgerlich is little more than a marketing ploy. Time and again, leading figures in the party have drawn attention for statements that downplay Germany’s responsibility for the Shoah or are just plain racist. Alexander Gauland, the éminence grise of the AfD, is best known for saying the Third Reich was merely “bird shit” in the context of Germany’s more than 1,000 years of “successful” history — remarks many viewed as downplaying Nazi crimes.

Nationally, the AfD is polling at about 15 percent, slightly better than where it was in the last federal election in 2017. With the ruling coalition between Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) teetering, the AfD clearly sees an opening to broaden its appeal.

In that regard, the party’s weekend convention in Braunschweig, a northern city near the home of Volkswagen, was a success. Unlike the CDU and SPD, which have been preoccupied recently with disputes over their leadership and direction, the AfD offered a sea of calm. That’s a big change for a party whose past conventions have often devolved into raucous affairs with delegates from opposing factions engaging in open rhetorical warfare.

“Our party is gaining momentum,” said Meuthen, who also holds a seat in the European Parliament. He was re-elected to the position of co-party leader with 69 percent of the vote.

Re-elected co-chairman of the Alternative for Germany Joerg Meuthen, left, and newly elected co-chairman of the AfD Tino Chrupalla | Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

Chrupalla won with 55 percent of the vote in the second leadership ballot, beating hardliner Gottfried Curio in a run-off.

“Chrupalla is someone who is accepted by both sides, the right-wing conservatives and the nationalist wing,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist who specializes in the far right. “Chrupalla is not an enemy to either side, so they can come to terms with him.”

A ‘new era’

With reference to the fresh leadership, Meuthen said both the country and the party were “experiencing a new era,” adding that the party had “to close its flanks” to the extreme right. One of Meuthen’s challengers for the leadership was Wolfgang Gedeon, a physician from southwestern Germany who believes it shouldn’t be a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust and who has warned of “Zionist conspiracies” seeking to undermine the AfD. When Gedeon took the stage for his speech during the vote, half of attending party members left the room and booed. Meuthen said this had been “a clear signal” from the members.

The selection of Chrupalla, who hails from Saxony, was largely strategic. As a non-academic and tradesman, he appeals to blue-collar voters who distrust “elites.” More important, he comes from the east, a region that has become the party’s stronghold. Chrupalla said it had been a “tough piece of work” for him and that it was “about time for a voice from the east to be voted into the party leadership.”

The party experienced surges in all of the three eastern elections in German federal states earlier this year, significantly hampering the coalition-building opportunities for all other parties as they refuse to govern with the far right.

Chrupalla also said the AfD had “taken great care not to elect an academic,” as a big part of the AfD’s members would come “from the middle class.”

“We need to attract more voters in this area and we also need to have more representatives from these fields,” Chrupalla said.

Meuthen also took the occasion to attack the country’s Social Democrats, the junior partner in the so-called “grand coalition” with Merkel’s conservatives, who held a significant vote parallel to the AfD party congress. That vote sent shock waves across German politics late Saturday, after a surprise decision by the SPD to elect a leadership duo that has expressed deep reservations over the party’s participation in Merkel’s government, casting doubt on the viability of the grand coalition.

Germany’s mainstream political parties refuse to cooperate with the AfD, branding it xenophobic and questioning its attachment to democratic norms.

“This grand coalition is now a small coalition,” Meuthen said, adding that he expected a snap election at some point next year. In his eyes, the Social Democrats “will come to the result that they have to re-orientate themselves and that will only work in the opposition.”

Germany’s mainstream political parties refuse to cooperate with the AfD, branding it xenophobic and questioning its attachment to democratic norms. Several senior politicians from the conservative party, including leader Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer, have repeatedly ruled out any coalition with the AfD. Kramp-Karrenbauer in October also labelled the far-right party as the “political arm of right-wing radicalism.”

Meuthen said the conservative party leader had a “serious problem of acceptance” within her own party ranks, referring to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s low score in opinion polls, and that “under this leadership there will be no cooperation anyway.”

“But the conservatives need to think about with which parties it wants to continue,” Chrupalla said, adding that the AfD could be such a partner. He said that he had observed a “softening” among some conservatives toward the party and the prospect of teaming up together, though he said this would probably have to happen at the local level first.

“For us it is not about governing immediately,” Meuthen said, adding that he believed it was “sometimes smarter to wait.”

“We will not be in the federal government within the next four months,” Meuthen said, but also noted that “forming a government will become more difficult until it will no longer be possible without us.”

“I’m longing for new elections,” said Alice Weidel, who was re-elected as deputy party leader and also heads the AfD’s parliamentary group. “We are very well prepared for that.”

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