Understanding the Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Founded just over a decade ago, the populist radical right Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) has significantly disrupted German politics ever since. In 2017, it became the first new party to enter the German Bundestag since the Party of Democratic Socialism (later the Left Party) did so in the reunification election of 1990. It is also currently represented in fourteen out of sixteen state legislatures (Bremen and Schleswig-Holstein are the exceptions), numerous local jurisdictions, and the European Parliament (where it finished second nationally in Germany in the June 2024 election, with 15.9 percent). The party gained support after adopting xenophobic and Islamophobic positions following the refugee crisis in 2015. It has continued to adopt extreme right positions, so much so that members and branches have come under investigation for anti-constitutional activities. The simultaneous normalization and radicalization of the party makes it an outlier even in comparison to other far-right parties in Europe.

With these dynamics in mind and elections looming—the September 2024 state elections in the east and especially the fall 2025 Bundestag election—comprehending the AfD is vital, including the reasons for its support, why it has radicalized, and what the potential policy consequences are, if the AfD were to gain governing power. With this goal in mind, the American-German Institute has created a new project “Understanding the Alternative for Germany.” This project will centralize access to and build upon our relevant analysis, making our rich corpus of information more visible and easily accessible to policymakers, experts, and academics hoping to better understand this force in German politics.

Project Description

In the 2017 Bundestag election, the AfD garnered 12.6 percent of the vote and became the largest opposition party when the CDU/CSU and SPD formed a grand coalition. In the 2021 Bundestag election its support declined to 10.4 percent, which in a highly fragmented outcome was only the fifth best result. Since then, its polling numbers have increased to as high as 23 percent in late 2023, but more recently down to 16-18 percent. Its level of support varies—stronger in the east and south than in the west and north. Its strength on the territory of the former East Germany (GDR) is particularly noteworthy—leading state polls with 25 percent in Brandenburg, 29 percent in Thuringia, and 30 percent in Saxony, all of which have elections in September 2024.

This increased support has happened even though the party has demonstrably radicalized since its founding as an economically oriented Euroskeptic party in 2013. It has embraced anti-immigration, Islamophobic, and xenophobic positions, as well as anti-LGBTQ+, anti-environmental, and pro-Russian positions, among others. Various wings and organizations of the party are either under investigation by governmental authorities for suspected anti-constitutional right-extremist behavior or have been deemed a threat to the liberal democratic order (e.g., the state party organizations in Thuringia and Saxony). Scandals have also plagued the party, from the role that important party members played in a late-2023 secret meeting in Potsdam focused on “remigration” of foreigners and German citizens, to alleged infiltration by Chinese spies, to payments from entities affiliated with the Russian state.

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