September 4, 2019

GÖRLITZ, Germany — As results in two eastern German state elections came in Sunday night, leaders of the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) were jubilant: “We are a people’s party!” declared Alice Weidel, the party’s co-leader, using the term Volkspartei, typically reserved for the country’s big-tent centrist parties.

“It couldn’t have gone much better,” said Jörg Meuthen, another party leader, adding that the party’s performance Sunday proves it is “not an extreme party, not a radical party.”

It’s easy to see why AfD leaders are celebrating. Sunday’s results in Saxony and Brandenburg show the party has cemented its place as a significant force in eastern German politics: It won 27.5 percent of the vote in Saxony and 22.2 percent in Brandenburg, coming in second in both states. (In the city of Görlitz, where I’ve spent the month leading up to election day, the AfD’s result was even stronger: Here the party came in first with 37.8 percent of the vote.)

But while the AfD saw a major surge in support over the last state elections in both Saxony and Brandenburg held in 2014, it’s also worth noting that the party already hit such levels of support back in 2017—and has failed to make significant gains in the last two years. The party’s result on Sunday wasn’t much different than the support it received in the 2017 federal elections or this spring’s elections to the European Parliament.

In Saxony, for example, the AfD went from 27 percent in 2017 to 25.3 percent in May to 27.5 percent this fall; in Brandenburg, it’s made only modest gains, going from 20.2 percent in 2017 to 19.9 percent in May to 22.2 percent on Sunday. In other words, the two contests raise the question of whether the party has or will soon hit its electoral ceiling, at least for now.

Broken promises?

In my final weeks in Saxony, both living in Görlitz and during a visit to Dresden, the state’s capital, I met people who illustrated both phenomena: the AfD’s ability to bring in new voters who never expected they’d support the party, and its limitations with others who see it as too cozy with right-wing extremists. Until the party can win over some of those voters, it may struggle to grow beyond the level of support it has now.

One thing that struck me in Görlitz was the range of people who told me they were backing (or considering backing) the AfD: From a writer to a bookseller, from local small-business owners to an opera singer, the people I spoke with in some ways did illustrate Weidel’s description of the AfD as a “people’s party.”

Gottfried and Helma Thielsch, a couple in their 60s who owned a small shop here in Görlitz, had voted for the center-right CDU since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But when they had to sell their shop a few years ago, sending Helma into early retirement and giving the couple barely enough to live on, they said their frustrations finally came to a head.

“They promised us so much,” Gottfried told me of the CDU. Helma chimed in: “The politicians forgot the people; they forgot to bring the people with them. They only made promises and never kept them.”

Like some others I spoke with in Görlitz, they were especially incensed by the handling of the wave of refugees in 2015 and 2016. “Our whole lives, we’ve had to work hard and both only have a small pension that’s not enough to live on,” Helma said over coffee next to one of Görlitz’s main squares. “And then others come to this country, and there’s money for them?”

They were initially skeptical of the AfD because of impressions they’d received from the media, but said they reconsidered when they realized many of their friends and acquaintances supported it. How could it be so extreme, they thought, if regular people they knew were involved? “What the AfD wants are completely normal things every politician should actually be doing,” Gottfried told me.

Carola Preuß, who works as a bookseller, told me the week before the election that she was originally attracted to the party by its now-ex leader Frauke Petry. She said she was still deciding whom to vote for in Sunday’s election and that she doesn’t like everything about the AfD. Still, she added, she understood the frustration that led people to the party. “I want a change, and in my opinion that change can only happen with a big bang,” she said.

Even so, Preuß said she’s careful about disclosing any sympathy for the AfD to local friends and customers because there’s still a stigma associated with doing so: “No one would ask why, they’d just immediately shut down,” she noted.

Along similar lines, Eleni Ioannidou, a Greek-Polish opera singer who runs a local cultural organization in Görlitz, told me she isn’t necessarily on board with everything in the AfD’s platform, but that she sees it as the only party willing to speak out about criminality among refugees and migrants. In June’s mayoral election, she cast her vote for AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel.

When she posted something positive about the party on Facebook shortly before that election, however, the reaction from her AfD-opposed friends was swift and strong: “One friend told me, ‘I’m shocked that you could write something good about the AfD,’” Ioannidou told me. “And I was totally shocked that my friends now hate me because I voiced my opinion.”

The AfD could have a promising future, she said, but argued that it needs educated, cultured people to help keep it from “radicalizing further.”

Enduring ties to far-right extremists

But others who might otherwise be aligned with the AfD’s thinking believe it’s already radicalized too much—and can’t imagine themselves supporting the party until its leaders draw clear boundaries with the right-wing extremists who support it.

In the days leading up to the election, one headline illustrated the reasons people might have reason to worry on that front: Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD’s lead candidate in Brandenburg, had once attended a neo-Nazi rally in Greece, the German news website Spiegel Online reported. Kalbitz is strongly aligned with Thuringia party leader Björn Höcke and his so-called “wing,” a faction within the party that occupies its far-right flank and has been gaining influence internally in recent months.

Wolfram Kast, a 65-year-old writer and jurist who moved to Görlitz from Freiburg two years ago, and cast his vote for the AfD in June’s mayoral election, thinks the party makes several valid points other political leaders ignore or deny—but said he could never imagine himself supporting the AfD at the state or federal level.

“We know [AfD politicians] will say one sentence that can be interpreted in two different ways—and that they do it to speak to the fringe groups because they need every vote,” he said, naming Höcke and his “wing.” “Of course they know such things are oriented toward the far-right edge of the party, but they also know how to just deny it.”

After my initial discussion with Kast, we went together one evening to an AfD event with Wippel, the mayoral candidate and local party leader, in Görlitz’s old town. As it was Kast’s first time attending such an AfD gathering, I was interested in seeing his before-and-after reaction to the event.

Ultimately, his impressions were mixed—and didn’t convince him he could vote for the AfD on Sunday, leading him to abstain instead. “[Wippel] sounded very competent, but on many points, like security, it’s far too much,” he told me afterward. “He speaks about the danger that really doesn’t exist, at least in this amount that he talks about.”

And Antje Hermenau, a Dresden-based former member of the Bundestag from the Greens who’s since split with her party, told me the AfD had her “full attention” when it launched as an anti-euro party back in 2013. “They were the only ones who honestly acknowledged that things were going poorly with the euro,” she told me over lunch in a cafe along the Elbe River two weeks before election day.

Talking to Hermenau, I was struck by how much she echoed the concerns and rhetoric of many of the AfD voters I encountered in Görlitz—especially when it comes to the way the German government handled the migration crisis. Politicians from traditional parties, including her former colleagues in the Greens, fundamentally misunderstood the feelings of their constituents when they allowed such a large number of refugees into the country, she told me.

“We should have migration, but… people want it not to make life any harder than it already is,” she said, stressing the shifts eastern Germany has already endured since the fall of the Wall. “These people have worked hard and they’ve earned the right for us not to make their lives more difficult.”

But despite her initial interest in the party, Hermenau was ultimately turned off by its unwillingness or inability to draw clear boundaries with extremists. She instead aligned herself with the Free Voters, an independent citizens’ movement that leans conservative (and won 3.4 percent in Saxony on Sunday).

“Many of the people who were involved in the NPD are now with the AfD,” she told me, referring to Germany’s neo-Nazi fringe party. “At the moment, they have too many Nazis in the party—they need to kick them out. I can’t go along with that.”

On election night, Meuthen, the AfD leader, sought to dispel the idea that the party can’t keep out extremists: “We have boundaries from the extreme right in our own ranks—that is necessary,” Meuthen told the radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “We have a party program; when you look at it, you won’t find anything radical or extreme, just right-wing.”

Still, for anyone who’s interested in the party but see its far-right wing as a deal-breaker, the news about Kalbitz—and the continued positions of power for people like him and Höcke—are hardly encouraging signs.

Ultimately, Sunday was a good night for the AfD. The party is also expected to do well in the third eastern German state election this fall, in Thuringia in late October. But whether the AfD can move beyond the support it’s getting in these key eastern German states—or if it will stall somewhere around a quarter of the vote in the east—remains an open question.