Angela Merkel’s party might have won the German elections yesterday, but the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) succeeded in getting 13% of the votes. This is the first time since 1949, more than five decades, that a far-right party is entering the German parliament.

This puts more pressure on the German chancellor, whose centre-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party took 33% of the votes and in the weeks ahead they will have to establish a coalition with the liberal centre-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Alliance 90/The Greens. Discussions among the various parties could take as long as December and, if they do fail, there will be the possibility of new elections.

At the same time, the right-wing populist AfD party has problems of its own, as its chairwoman Frauke Petry resigned today and announced that she will serve as an independent MP for her constituency in Saxony. The German politician was the chair of the far-right party between July 2015 and September 2017. Earlier this year, Petry was in disagreement with the party’s co-leader, Jörg Meuthen, and two of the leading election candidates, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, over the direction of the party. Petry wanted AfD to follow a more pragmatic approach, while the others sought to defend the idea of the party acting as solid opposition to the German parliament. 

It has been argued that in the states that used to be part of East Germany, AfD could become the second-largest party. The reason is that the party’s rhetoric has reached those who feel left behind after reunification.

Merkel clarified that AfD won’t be involved in setting or shaping policies that affect Germany, Europe or issues such as migration and refugees. As Merkel said: “The parties that are capable of forming coalitions with each other will seek solutions there are of course differences ... but AfD will have no influence.”

 The surge of populism

The right-wing Alternative for Germany, like Ukip in the UK and the National Front in France, is an anti-immigration party, that has taken advantage of the general dissatisfaction of the European electorate with globalisation, migration, socio-economic problems such as unemployment and economic crisis, but also of the sameness and inefficiency of established national political elites.

AfD is, however, supportive of the European Union but critical of further European integration, the Euro and Eurozone bailouts, especially those of Greece, which were the reason for the party’s birth. 

With Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory, populism gained momentum, but the enthusiasm soon deflated with the defeats of Eurosceptic Geert Wilders’ Freedom party and Marine Le Pen’s National Front. The AfD’s third party place in the German elections yesterday reminded us of the populist threat that is undulating under the credos of European democracies, but also of the possibility of its final demise.

The party’s voters, and particularly 90% of them, wanted stronger borders and were angry with Merkel’s migrant policy. But populist parties like the AfD, might initially harness the energy and disaffection of the population by exploiting their anger, but eventually, having no stable policies other than those of opposing mainstream parties, they fall apart. 

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who has written extensively on extremism and the rise of populism, explained that the fragmentation of traditional parties coincides with the rise of populist alternatives which can exercise considerable influence. According to him, “Populists tend to ask the right questions but give the wrong answers. They force issues on to the agenda that mainstream parties have ignored.” He added that such parties should be dealt with as regular parties and by constructing strong ideological cases to fight against them: “You fight populists not by ignoring them, demonising them or adopting their agendas, but by clearly addressing all the issues – including the ones they care about – on the basis of your own ideology. By making a positive, clear and convincing ideological case.”

While Merkel has won, the AfD constitutes a thorn on the side of German politics and acts as a reminder of how mainstream parties need to reconfigure themselves and start addressing the issues that affect real people.  Germany, Europe, and for that matter, the whole world, doesn’t need right-wing populists to remind them of what needs to be done, but traditional parties to search for new alternatives and new ways to reach the people they represent.