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Unwelcome by peers, Germany's prickly populist party finds its own way

Shifts in political norms

The anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland took second place in last month's elections in Saxony-Anhalt – but it's not popular among state parliamentarians. Now it's turning that dynamic to its advantage.

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    Frauke Petry (2nd r.), chairwoman of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), and (l. to r.) AfD regional officers Uwe Junge of Rhineland-Palatinate­, Andre Poggenburg of Saxony-Anhalt, and Joerg Meuthen of Baden-Wuerttemberg arrive for a news conference in Berlin on March 14.
    Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters/File
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On a recent day, there was big news in all of Saxony-Anhalt’s leading news outlets: the German state’s large new parliamentary faction, the populist, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland, was not being given parliamentary offices.

The party’s 25 parliamentarians had been given only a conference room in which to work. To regional leader André Poggenburg, that was evidence of traditional parties' discrimination against the AfD, whose stunning 24.2 percent share of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt last month gave the young party the state’s second-largest parliamentary faction.

But Sebastian Striegel remembers similar treatment five years ago, when his party, the Greens, was first elected to office. Waiting for sitting parliamentarians to finish their term and vacate their offices, he points out, is not a slight but rather standard parliamentary procedure.

To him, the AfD's public anger over room assignments is part of a larger AfD strategy – one that points to how the party will operate in office.

“Sure, some of their parliamentarians are new to politics, but these are not political laymen,” he says. “They know exactly what they’re doing. They want to keep scandalizing traditional politics, and disinformation campaigns directed to ordinary people are part of that strategy.”

Indeed, Saxony-Anhalt may be a harbinger of a completely new German political dynamic. By taking advantage of the gulf between itself and the establishment, the AfD is simultaneously positioning itself as a party that cannot be partnered with – and as victim of discrimination by rival parties that refuse to partner with it. It can then tap that to justify its hostility to the establishment. With federal elections on the horizon next year, it's a dynamic that could shake up Germany's political scene nationwide.

An isolated party

During East German times, the region now known as Saxony-Anhalt was an industrial powerhouse, but most of its communist-era manufacturing didn’t survive German reunification. Though its cities and towns have been spiffed up with government infrastructure funds, and the market economy has brought retail outlets, Saxony-Anhalt is struggling. Just over 10 percent of its residents are unemployed, a rate higher than any other German state, barring Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Here in Halle, the state’s largest city, there are plenty of shops and restaurants – but also boarded-up shops and abandoned buildings. Perhaps tellingly, during the Monitor’s recent visit the place attracting the most people was the opening of TK Maxx, a fashion discount chain.

Last month, Saxony-Anhalt was the site of AfD's greatest political triumph in German regional elections, which are seen as a bellwether for the federal vote in 2017. While still trailing the 30 seats held by the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), AfD scored almost a quarter of the vote and 25 seats, making it the second largest party in the region.

Normally, that would put AfD in prime position to be either a junior partner in government or leader of a united opposition. But neither possibility looks likely.

The CDU has ruled out talks to enter a coalition with the AfD. Instead, the most likely outcome looks to be a coalition that includes the CDU; the decimated Social Democrats (SPD), who saw their support drop from 21.5 percent to 10.6 percent; and the Greens.

That would leave the Left Party, which holds 16 seats, and the AfD to provide a constructive opposition to the government. But the Left Party faction will not collaborate with the AfD, says Henriette Quade, a Left MP, because she says the AfD is racist and unconstructive. “And the AfD’s story is that there’s no real opposition except for them,” Ms. Quade explains. “It’s almost a religious attitude, along the lines of ‘the people needs to rebel against the politicians.' ”

Saxony-Anhalt now seems bound for a political situation where three injured parties hobble on in an unconventional coalition while the state’s second- and third-largest parties don’t cooperate at all in opposition. That scenario could repeat itself when other state parliaments and, most importantly, when a new federal parliament is elected next year.

Isolation as tool

That might suit the AfD just fine.

AfD leaders in Saxony-Anhalt have shown little indication that they would be willing to join a coalition anyway. On his Facebook page in February, Mr. Poggenburg briefly flirted with the idea of a coalition. But since the vote, the AfD has been silent on the possibility.

The AfD may see little point in negotiating with rivals. A telling moment occurred at the new state parliament’s first session on April 12. When the acting parliament president congratulated an AfD MP on his birthday, AfD and some CDU deputies applauded – but not the Social Democrat, Green, and Left Party MPs. Indeed, the Saxony-Anhalt CDU ruled out a coalition with the party even before the elections. Though refusing to talk to the AfD may be a principled stand, it also fuels the narrative of anti-AfD discrimination. (Mr. Striegel argues that connotation could have been avoided if the CDU had negotiated with the AfD, and then ruled out a coalition based on policy differences.)

Many AfD leaders are as wary of the media as they are of fellow politicians, perhaps not a surprising attitude given that most mainstream media have portrayed the party negatively. As AfD’s Saxony-Anhalt parliamentary faction began recruiting staff members, the government-funded Deutschlandradio reported the news with the headline “right-wing populist job factory.” In national magazine Spiegel, columnist Jakob Augstein compared AfD leader Frauke Petry and her boyfriend (also an AfD official) to Bonnie and Clyde. “Hate emerges from her laughing mouth,” Mr. Augstein said of Ms. Petry.

Using the press when it's useful

Still, the AfD uses the press where it can, as in the case of the conference room issue in Halle. Voters could be forgiven for believing that discrimination lies behind the fact that Poggenburg and the 24 other newly elected representatives of Saxony-Anhalt’s second-largest party have to camp out in makeshift quarters.

At the same time, the AfD promotes contradictory policies, notably tax cuts as well as demands for the government to do more, that make cooperation difficult, notes Wolfgang Renzsch, a professor of European studies at the University of Magdeburg – Saxony-Anhalt’s capital. As a result, traditional parties in Saxony-Anhalt and beyond are caught in a dysfunctional bind.

That, suggests Mr. Striegel, is creating a situation where the AfD will use the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament as a taxpayer-funded platform. “Their goal is to prove that our political system doesn’t work,” he argues.

According to Ms. Quade, “the AfD will use parliament as a platform for their hatred and street politics.” It's a perspective that could set off alarm bells in Berlin: A new opinion poll for the national TV channel gives the AfD a record 14 percent of the vote, while the SPD drops to a record-low 21 percent and the CDU drops to 34 percent.

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