(AFP) – Populist party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) began life at the height of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis in 2013 on an anti-euro platform.
But as fears over a potential euro collapse waned and concerns turned to the 1.1 million asylum seekers who arrived in Germany last year, AfD has morphed into a party that has even suggested that police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them from entering the country.
Its transformation into an anti-migrant party has been accompanied by its stellar rise in popularity, with opinion polls predicting that it would record a surge in support when more than 12 million voters elect new regional parliaments for the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday.
Founded by economics professor Bernd Luecke, the party scored points right at the beginning as it struck a chord with voters disillusioned with the politics of Germany’s main parties, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
It pulled votes from Germans who were particularly outraged at having to bail out southern countries, which they felt had only themselves to blame for their sovereign debt crises.
Although AfD fell short of getting a foothold in the national parliament in 2013 elections, garnering 4.7 percent rather than the 5 percent threshold necessary to capture seats, it quickly showed that it was here to stay.
In May 2014, it sent seven deputies to the European Parliament with 6.5 percent of the vote.
It continued to broaden its reach, capturing seats in the regional parliaments of Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Hamburg and Bremen.
But the AfD was soon riven by an internal rift between the moderate Luecke and the hardline Frauke Petry, who was tugging the party further towards the right.
As Petry prevailed and took over as party chief in July 2015, the tone of the AfD lurched right, although it has also been careful to distance itself from neo-Nazi party NPD.
Petry’s ascent to power came just as Germany suddenly woke up to tens of thousands of asylum seekers streaming into the country on a weekly basis.
In comments published by the Mannheimer Morgen regional daily that sparked a storm, she said: “We need efficient controls to prevent so many unregistered asylum seekers from continuing to enter via Austria”.
“No policeman wants to fire on a refugee and I don’t want that either. But as a last resort there should be recourse to firearms,” said Petry, who has acknowledged that being provocative was her strategy.
“Pertinent, and sometimes also provocative speech” is indispensable to get attention, Petry wrote in a letter to party members, according to national news agency DPA.
If the opinion polls turn out to be accurate in Sunday’s vote, her tactic may well be working.
Local elections in the western state of Hesse last weekend appeared to bear that out.
In the prosperous region, the party clinched a record 11.9 percent, becoming the third political force in the state, behind the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD).