The German election is a month away and with that also comes a real rarity: a party getting into parliament which is on the “right” of Angela Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian partner, the CSU. Over the last decades, this has been a no-go zone in German politics, too severe were the memories of the Nazi era. But come September, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, will set a landmark, beating the 5 percent threshold to get into parliament in all likelihood (currently they are pollingbetween 7 and 10 percent).
As we have seen throughout the years, those considered as “right-wing populists” in the mainstream are by no means a homogeneous group, from Brexiteers in the UKIP and on the fringe of the Tories as somewhat favorable examples to more frightening ones like Marine Le Pen in France. But what kind of party is the AfD?
The AfD was founded in 2013 by a bunch of economics professors — at first they were mockingly called“Professorenpartei” (“professor’s party”) — who were fed up by the crisis in Greece and demanded a German exit from the eurozone. Among them were economists like Joachim Starbatty and Roland Vaubel, known in Germany for their free-market ideas. The goal was to found a party which would reconcile the cultural conservatism that was lost in the conservative CDU and the liberal economic policies that were lost in the classical-liberal party, the FDP. However, the AfD focused increasingly on refugees instead of the euro, which led to the departure of many of its founding members in 2015, including the leader up to that point, Bernd Lucke.
Despite their departure, the influence of the ordoliberals can be felt to this day. In the party program for the upcoming election, the AfD still demands to exit the eurozone and until this happens, to end the excessivemonetary policy by the ECB. They are opposed to bank bail-outs, want to abolish the inheritance tax, and lower sales and income taxes. Subsidies should be cut, rent control is criticized, and the policy on quotas and anti-discrimination laws is to just have none. The position is that freedom of contract should come first instead.
Sure, there are some weak points: They want to fight Islamic terrorism by virtually any means (despite the blowback effect of such actions actually causing it), and overall on Islam, their positions are rather excessive: “Islam is not a part of Germany,” they write and by that come up with proposals such as a prohibition of burqasand niqabs in public spaces, mandatory-German sermons in mosques, and an abandoning of all Islam theology chairs at universities. Furthermore, the party has adopted positions asserting that “consumer protection should be a national task,” and that the minimum wage be retained. Trying to be family-friendly, they promise to give numerous handouts to parents. Perhaps worst of all, they want to reinstate the draft.
On balance though, the program still comes out as a document that hardly is extremist by German standards. What makes the party problematic is the unlikelihood that any of the good parts would be implemented — while the bad parts are more likely to be adopted. Here we arrive at the personnel of the AfD. Yes, there are some classical liberals left for sure. Beatrix von Storch, member of the Hayek Society and one of the two MEPs from the AfD in the European Parliament, has opposed any cooperation with the Front National in France — because they are too socialist. Furthermore, one of their two leading candidates for the election, Alice Weidel, considers herself a “conservative libertarian” and tries to get the AfD back to talking more about the euro and the ECB and less about how awful refugees are.
Nonetheless, the great majority of the members and supporters have no relation whatsoever with liberal ideas — which is shown by the fact that many AfD voters would vote for Die Linke (The Left), the socialist party, as second-choice. Alexander Gauland, the other leading candidate next to Weidel, has called Adam Smith’s theories “unchristian” and has faulted markets for the 2008 financial crisis: “The invisible hand turned out to be exactly what it actually is: ideology. Private self-interest has developed into a full catastrophe.”
Björn Höcke, probably the loudest member of the party, thinks that “materialistic [classical] liberalism has led to a cultural co-optation of this country.” He is known for having gone full-on nationalist in numerous of his speeches, for example: “The Syrians who come to us still have their Syria. But if we — through the Syrians — lose our Germany, we will not have a homeland anymore.” And in reference to a Holocaust memorial in Berlin he had to say: “We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital.” This can only be beaten by chairman for the state of Saxony-Anhalt, André Poggenburg, who has wondered if it’s possible to enlarge the German territory at some point in the future.
This drift to the collectivist right is also noticeable in the program. There was a time when the AfD wanted to privatize unemployment insurance — now the position is those benefits for the unemployed should be handed out for a longer period than is now the case. One no longer hears words from the party about reducing economic barriers. Instead we hear a call for more government actions if “free trade is failing.” Explanations on deregulation plans and tax cuts are much vaguer (for example, the claim that corporate taxes should be “fair”). Sentences like “only small government can be good government” or mentions of Wilhelm Röpke and Ludwig Erhard, which were still found in the previous program, are now notably missing.
To be sure, the AfD is a long way from resembling a Nazi party. It’s not even the Alt-Right of Germany, despite having some members like Höcke who definitely can be put in this camp. But overall, liberty-minded people shouldn’t get their hopes up too high when it comes to the Alternative for Germany.
Kai Weiss is an International Relations student and works for the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institute.