Scandals and Missteps Slow Momentum of Germany’s Far Right

The far-right Alternative for Germany party was poised for a banner year.

Not long ago, the party, known as AfD, was polling nationally near 25 percent. With elections approaching for the European Parliament and in three eastern states — its traditional stronghold — the party looked set to achieve its chief goal of moving from the margins to the mainstream.

Suddenly, the party’s future seems murkier. It is still riding relatively high — the second-most popular party in the country. But recently, as members have been caught up in spying and influence peddling scandals, secret discussions about deporting immigrants and controversies over extreme statements, the AfD has faced a stiffening backlash, threatening the inroads it had made into the mainstream.

The steady drumbeat of missteps and scandal has forced the party, already officially labeled a “suspected” extremist group by the German authorities, to cast aside even some important members and caused fellow far-right parties abroad to shun it.

“This week that is behind us was not a good week,” Alice Weidel, one of the two leaders of the party, said at a campaign stop on May 25.

The AfD is feeling the repercussions. Local elections in the eastern state of Thuringia last weekend did not produce the resounding mandate it had hoped for, though it still finished strong.

Now, about a week before elections begin for the European Parliament, the party’s prospects look a bit shakier. Yet it is still likely to win more seats in both the European Parliament and state elections than before, polls suggest.

“Some of the people who had already switched to the AfD have had second thoughts,” said Manfred Güllner, the head of the Forsa Institute, a political polling agency. “But the radical right-wing core is not going away.”

In perhaps a sign that the AfD camel can carry only so many straws, last week the party censured its own, pushing its two top candidates for the European Parliament elections from the campaign trail, while not removing them from contention.

One, Maximilian Krah, gave a recent interview with The Financial Times and the Italian daily La Repubblica, in which he expressed a belief that not all members of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary force, were necessarily criminals. The other, Petr Bystron, is being investigated for receiving money from Russia.

Mr. Krah declined to comment for this article. Mr. Bystron did not respond to a request for comment.

Even in a party known for roguish members who refuse to fall in line, recent months have been a lot.

Before his comments, Mr. Krah had already spent weeks in the headlines after his assistant was arrested on suspicion of spying for China, and his own offices were searched, a searing revaluation for a party that presents itself as anticorruption and hypernationalist.

In May, the AfD leader in the state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, was fined 13,000 euros, roughly $14,000, for using a forbidden Nazi slogan in a 2021 speech.

But perhaps the most consequential airing of the party’s laundry came in January, after it was revealed that AfD members had joined a meeting where the mass deportation of immigrants — including naturalized citizens — was discussed.

The news touched off months of mass protests by millions against the AfD countrywide. Current polls suggest that support for the party nationally has slipped, hovering from 14 to 17 percent, by some estimates, from a peak of about 23 percent last December.

In hopes of recapturing momentum, the party faces something of a strategic tightrope, said Benjamin Höhne, a professor at Chemnitz University of Technology.

It must appease an extremist core while broadening its appeal among center-right voters if it is ever to extend its reach beyond its regional strongholds and into real power.

“This is a normalization strategy,” Mr. Höhne said. “To try to create an appeal to the middle of society, but not go and leave the right-wing stigmatized in a corner.”

The path has grown even narrower as the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union, or C.D.U., has pitched toward the right, potentially peeling off AfD voters.

In addition, a new party — the Sahra Wagenknecht movement, which blends populism and far-left politics — may also be a threat.

It is a predicament some members of AfD bristle at. “The C.D.U. is now offering itself as a solution to problems that they have created,” said Stephan Brandner, a senior federal AfD lawmaker.

The most vulnerable part of the AfD’s support may be those voters who had turned to the party for the first time — drawn through dissatisfaction with the government, or perhaps to lodge a protest vote — who are now turned off by the drumbeat of scandal.

“This portion of the electorate is now what the leadership of the AfD is fighting for,” said Johannes Hillje, a German political scientist who studies the AfD. “They need to be able to mobilize much more than the far-right milieu.”

In Bavaria, where the party had made inroads, Andreas Jurca, an AfD member of the State House, says he is now witnessing a retraction. In the past few months, he said, about 10 percent of new applicants to the party in his region had withdrawn their application.

“Last year we kind of managed to enter the middle class,” he said. “Now, their problem was not our positions; it was that we are kind of made a pariah.”

Last weekend’s elections in Thuringia offered a mixed picture of the AfD future. The party fared less well than expected for major seats, like mayoralties and district leaders, capturing 26 percent of the vote, second to the C.D.U.’s 27 percent.

But it nabbed a majority of seats in a number of municipal councils, a shift that could have trickle-up effects on federal elections, said Matthias Quent, a professor at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences who studies the far right.

“This is a new dimension and will change local politics,” Professor Quent said. Having AfD members running everyday life in Thuringia could add to the party’s legitimacy, with consequences for future elections. “The idea is the normalization from the bottom.”

Tatiana Firsova contributed reporting.

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