Berlin, Germany – Late last month, Georg Maier, Thuringia’s interior minister, announced that the number of suspected right-wing “extremists” in the eastern German state of 2.1 million people had more than doubled – to almost 2,200.
The jump was explained by the domestic intelligence agency’s decision to categorise the entire state branch of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) as suspected “extremists”, and its faction known as The Wing as proven “extremists”. In the results of Germany’s federal election in September, AfD declined nationally. It won 10.3 percent of the vote, down from 12.6 percent four years ago, and fell from the third-largest party to the fifth.
But it came first in Saxony and Thuringia, eastern states where figures such as Bjorn Hoecke, leader of The Wing, are highly influential.
Friction is now brewing between the party’s relatively moderate and more hardline wings ahead of a decisive leadership vote, scheduled for spring.
While still beating the drum of anti-migrant xenophobia that powered its first entry into the German parliament in 2017, the AfD has spent the pandemic growing closer to the most radical and conspiracist fringes of German politics.
It has vehemently opposed COVID restrictions, spread doubts about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, and played a main role in anti-lockdown rallies and protests.
Over the weekend, thousands attended anti-lockdown protests in Hamburg and Düsseldorf, while about 350 people marched in Berlin at an event organised by the AfD’s youth wing.
Maier has claimed the AfD had “contributed to the radicalisation of the [protest] scene”.
Though the party looks set to chair an influential interior committee in the new parliament, the prospect that the AfD could become an anti-establishment force across Germany, or even form become part of a federal government, is more distant than ever.
As a rare three-way coalition voted to crown Socialist Democratic Party (SDP) leader Olaf Scholz as chancellor in the Bundestag last week, the AfD contingent abstained from the applause.
“The party is stagnating for two reasons: first, because there is an internal dispute; and second, because they have radicalised themselves indefinitely into a far-right party,” said Hajo Funke, a political scientist and expert on the German far right.
“Even in these relative strongholds of the AfD, Saxony and Thuringia and also Saxony-Anhalt [in the former East Germany], the potential of those who vote for AfD does not increase any further.”
Divisions and pandemic struggles
Joerg Meuthen, who has been party co-leader since 2015, is an economist from the western city of Essen who has represented the party’s more moderate wing,
He has announced that he would not stand again at the upcoming party conference.
He was dissatisfied with the results of the election and took a parting swipe at his more right-wing colleagues, saying they should make way for “completely new people”.
Parliamentary leader Alice Weidel, a possible replacement for Meuthen, replied by likening him to a “defiant boy” trying to take his football home, while other leading figures claimed he had become an irritating presence in the party.
Who the party chooses to replace Meuthen will be a sign of the relative strength of its factions.
The conference was supposed to take place in the eastern city of Wiesbaden this past weekend but was postponed, as the introduction of stricter coronavirus restrictions and vaccine requirements across Germany poses further headaches for the party.
Many of the 600 party delegates expected to attend are on the wrong side of requirements – having refused to be vaccinated – and would have struggled to enter hotels or venue spaces.
Similar difficulties in booking accommodation while unvaccinated scuppered a regional party conference in Brandenburg last month, and also prevented several AfD representatives from attending Wednesday’s vote for chancellor in the Bundestag.
After the vote, the parliament discussed further changes to Germany’s Infection Protection Act.
Weidel denounced a plan to make vaccination mandatory for medical and care staff as an “unheard-of transgression”, saying her party would continue to oppose and legally challenge such a move.
Another significant lingering threat to the party’s operations is the long-awaited decision on whether the entire national party could be classified as a suspected hardline group.
That designation would further hinder the party’s activities and diminish its appeal to more mainstream conservatives.
As mayor of Augustusburg, a town in rural Saxony, Dirk Neubauer has had a front-row seat to the AfD’s growth story.
He was hardly surprised when it swept every directly elected seat outside the state’s biggest cities, painting the electoral map bright blue.
But Augustusburg has so far proven immune, which Neubauer credits to an experiment in municipal democracy he has pioneered, in which local citizens are engaged in decision making and budgeting.
“Here we specifically create opportunities to have a say, to influence their lives again,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you can do this … here in this small group, then trust in politics will grow again.”
Recent concerns about inflation driving up the price of electricity and food rest upon old grievances, some imagined but many genuine – that the states in former East Germany have been left behind, economically and politically, since reunification.
The flight of young people, which has made rural parts of Saxony some of the oldest areas of Europe, is deeply felt.
As much as the pandemic or migration, these frustrations are capitalised on by the AfD, who say the region’s poor infrastructure and lack of job opportunities should be blamed on state and federal governments.
Their representatives also rail against the perceived elitism and anti-eastern bias across German politics and culture.
If some Germans, particularly in the west, feel the AfD has become a spent force, Neubauer shares no such complacency.
“We don’t have any more time,” said Neubauer, who fears Saxony could be the first state to see the AfD win a regional election.
“We have to overcome this gap. If we don’t do that now, it will be irreconcilable at some point.”
The far right is also popular among some young people, he said.
“I go to our schools and I know that those tendencies are there and are slowly normalising.”