The Alternative for Germany’s 12.6 percent result in Sunday’s election wraps up an important political season for European nationalist populists. It’s a showing that has worried many both in and outside Germany; but, all things considered, it’s another defeat for the far right, which appears to have hit its ceiling in Western Europe for now.
The AfD was promptly congratulated by Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) won 13.1 percent of the vote in the Netherlands in March, and by Marine Le Pen, whose National Front won 13.2 percent in the first round of the French legislative election in June. Many see the the AfD’s performance as more significant than that of the rest of the 13 percent club, since it’s a German party and German nationalism has an especially scary history. But 72 years after the Nazis’ defeat, they’re no more dangerous than those in neighboring countries.
The AfD had an advantage compared with their allies in the rest of Western Europe. Germany contains its own eastern European nation — the former German Democratic Republic. It’s poorer than the rest of the country and subject to the same post-Communist trauma as Poland or Hungary, and thus prone to elect either leftists or nationalists. The AfD’s success is largely based on gains in the east German states. But otherwise, the parties in the 13 percent club are rather similar — not just in their anti-immigrant, anti-European Union ideology but also in the ways they win, lose and react to the wins and losses.
The AfD, the National Front and the PVV attract a lot of attention, and millions of votes, as parties — but voters don’t seem to like their candidates in direct elections. The French nationalist party ended up with just eight seats in the National Assembly. In the Netherlands, where people only vote for parties, a vote for the PVV is a vote for Wilders, the only official member the party has.
Germans get two votes in an election — one for a party and one for a candidate in a constituency; the AfD only managed to get three people elected directly, all in the eastern land of Saxony. One of the party’s two leading candidates, Alexander Gauland, ran as a direct candidate in the neighboring eastern state of Brandenburg, where anti-immigrant sentiment also runs high — and lost to Martin Patzelt, a candidate from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party who had opened his home to two Eritrean refugees. In fact, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian sister group, the Christian Social Union, won an overwhelming majority of constituencies; had the German electoral system not prioritized the party vote, the AfD would have done worse than the National Front this year and only a little better than United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the U.K. in 2015, when the nationalist party won one parliament seat.
Constituency voting is a test of political professionalism: It involves very personal campaigning, door-to-door, at local fairs and pubs. Plenty of nationalist parties don’t do that very well. But it’s not required to collect the protest vote, which ebbs and flows with little regard to a party’s effort, driven by news events. That’s what these parties pick up to achieve their best results; some 20 percent of AfD voters backed leftist parties in the previous election — they are hardly principled nationalists. The identity-based parties use similar techniques to keep people angry and collect their votes — they all had the highest levels of Facebook activity and engagement in their respective countries this year — but the outcomes showed the limitations of this approach, especially given low levels of penetration by social networks in Western Europe.
The dependence on voter anger can play ugly tricks on the parties: The PVV, for example, went to 10 percent in 2012 from its record high result of 15.45 percent in 2010. The AfD is in line for a similar disappointment unless there’s a steady stream of strongly negative news about immigrants and the EU.
A shortage of direct, local support has meant there is little to force these parties to behave constructively in parliament. The PVV has sponsored almost no legislation, but it has distinguished itself as a relentless questioner, putting thousands of questions to cabinet members — far more than any other political force. It has also proposed more (failed) votes of no confidence in government ministers than anyone else. That is likely the kind of activity, aimed at exploiting the parliament as a stage, that one can expect of the AfD in Germany: Gauland has promised to “hunt” Merkel so that “people on the street come to believe the parliament plays a role again.” Theatrics are guaranteed — but, in fairness, there’s not much a party can achieve with 13 percent representation except make some noise.
That tactic is not conducive to good teamwork. Internal conflicts and ego flare-ups are the norm. On Monday, one of the AfD’s three directly elected legislators, Frauke Petry, surprised her comrades by declaring at a joint press conference that she wouldn’t be part of the AfD faction in parliament. Petry represents the AfD’s moderate wing; she’s said the party would have a better future if it distanced itself from the more controversial nationalist ideas. There are others like her, who will be scared off by Gauland’s unashamed brinkmanship.
The scene starring Petry was reminiscent of the recent departure of Florian Philippot from the National Front. Philippot was once Le Pen’s right-hand man, the party’s top strategist. Like Petry, he fretted about his shrinking role in his party’s leadership.
There’s not much for the nationalists left to win or lose this year. In Austria, the Freedom Party, which led in the polls until last summer, is down dramatically — a pattern both the PVV and the AfD have also followed. Though it’ll probably do better on Oct. 15 than the 13 percent club, it won’t win the election.
Identity-based parties counted on better results after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. Their representation in parliaments confers no real power on them, though by being in the limelight, they become bigger targets for more established, more professional and less odious rivals. The backlash can be punishing in the next electoral cycle. Their only hope is that life in Western Europe will get far worse so they can avoid backsliding.