May 3, 2013 | Foreign Policy

The Rise of Germany’s Tea Party

Could a brand-new, anti-euro political movement threaten Merkel's quest for a third term?
May 3, 2013 | Foreign Policy

The Rise of Germany’s Tea Party

Could a brand-new, anti-euro political movement threaten Merkel's quest for a third term?

BERLIN — As if dysfunctional Italians, resentful Greeks, and reluctant Cypriots weren't enough trouble, German Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces an obstacle much closer to home in her efforts to save Europe's monetary union from collapse. And with elections upcoming, she might even have a game-changing challenger on her doorstep.

The new anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is well-positioned to capitalize on rising voter discontent with tax-payer bailouts of mismanaged and corrupt southern European governments. The party's self-confident leader, Bernd Lucke, sees a chance to defeat Merkel's wobbly governing coalition in September's federal election. “Many of Angela Merkel's supporters will vote for us. And when she loses public support, this will be the end of her political life,” Lucke said recently. If this happens, it could put Merkel's triage efforts, and perhaps the entire effort to save the eurozone, into jeopardy.

Lucke is a deeply sober and analytical 50-year-old economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He spent 33 years as a card-carrying member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), before founding AfD this February. For Lucke, the tipping point came in 2010, when Germany bailed out Greece in violation of the EU's founding document, the Maastricht treaty. He told the Telegraph that “It communicated the feeling that governments were not bound by law, and it introduced a policy which was economically misguided. It made me feel homeless in my party.”

Now, his new party seeks to abolish the euro and return Germany to the Deutsche mark, which passed out of existence in 2002 with the introduction of the common currency. He argues that a phased-in process of currency reform could enable the Deutsche mark to again become Germany's currency by 2020. According to Lucke, this would relieve Germany of the burden of carrying the debt for bankrupt or near-bankrupt southern European countries and decrease the current tensions and resentments in Europe.

In April, the party's 1,300 members elected Lucke — along with entrepreneur and chemist Frauke Petry and journalist Konrad Adam — to lead AfD. And though it's still in its infancy, the party seems primed to take advantage of Germany's growing anti-euro sentiment. According to a 2010 Infratest Dimap poll, 57 percent of German citizens regret the introduction of the euro; more than one-third would like the Deutsche mark to be, once again, immediately reinstated as the country's currency.

Still, Lucke's new party has a ways to go. According to an April poll by the research institute INSA-Meinungstrend, the AfD could secure 4 percent of the vote in the federal election. And yet the numbers show the AfD cutting into Merkel's constituency. Just weeks after the party's conference in April, AfD membership enrollment continues its steady climb from a little over 5,000 registered members in late March to nearly 10,000 now. The AfD's treasurer Norbert Stenzel told the German daily Rheinische Post in late April that “at this time we are winning between 100 and 200 new members each day.”

The popularity is not hard to understand. A significant portion of Germany's now has serious doubts about the economic viability of southern European countries — Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus — and is getting fed up with being called Nazis every time they try to impose fiscal discipline on those begging for a handout. Take the example of Spain's large left-of-center daily, El Pais, which published an opinion piece in late March calling Merkel's behavior “Hitler-like” because her economic policies are the functional equivalent of a declaration of war on Europe. The paper later apologized for the Nazi parallel, but German's robust modern democracy doesn't take such comparisons lightly.

It has been a rough March and April on the European front for the domestically popular Merkel. Her austerity policies triggered France's governing socialist party to term her conduct “egotistical intransigence.” Merkel's disciplined remedy of roping in spending has been a sore point for the anti-frugal French socialists. Nevertheless, the attacks on Merkel proved to be too excessive for the party's leadership who are not keen to pick public fights with Europe's chief economic engine. France's interior minister Manuel Valls promptly condemned his party's attack on Merkel as “irresponsible, demagogic and noxious.”

Putting aside the charged EU debate about austerity versus capital infusion to spur European economic growth, Germans always viewed the birth of the euro with skepticism. The introduction of the new currency in 2002 prompted a coinage, “Teuro” — teuer is German for “expensive” — to lampoon the increased prices associated with the new currency. The Association for the German language even named “Teuro” the word of the year in 2002.

Eleven years on, euroskepticism seems to have reached a new peak. Even Kai Konrad, one of Merkel's most prominent economic advisors, recently predicted the demise of the currency in an interview with Die Welt. “Europe is important to me. Not the euro, ” he said. “And I would only give the euro a limited chance of survival.”

In this environment, the AfD's emergence seems almost inevitable. And yet the AfD can sometimes seem like a bit of a contradiction. On the one the hand, it puts opposition to the euro front and center on its homepage: “An end to this euro!” On the other hand, as Lucke told the German magazine Focus, “We are for the European market [but without the European common currency].” And he's also for maintaining unity among the 27 members of the EU in foreign policy, bank oversight, and defense.

Under Lucke's preferred scenario, “Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and probably France” would leave the euro right away. An ensuing transitional phase of four to five years would take place with co-existing euro and national currencies. The belt-tightening, fiscally responsible Northern European countries (with the euro) during the interim phase would be pitted against the Southern European countries charged with living too high on the hog. It's survival of the fittest. 

Lucke has become a ubiquitous presence in the German media and has worked hard to distance his organization from charges of extremism. Of course, a fringe anti-euro party is sure to attract some members embracing uglier strains of nationalism. The Rheinische Post noted that some AfD members and supporters write for the Junge Freiheit, an ultra-right wing newspaper that, critics argue, has chauvinistic and racist articles blanketing its pages. But as Lucke told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel in late April, “We do not want any anti-Semites, racists or xenophobes in our ranks.” Lucke said the AfD discharged a member who covered up his membership in the extremist right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

He has evidently learned lessons the missteps of another once promising political movement, the anti-copyright, pro-Internet freedom Pirate Party. Last year, that party, which had enjoyed some impressive successes in local elections, was engulfed in string of highly controversial outbreaks of alleged anti-Semitism. A Pirate Party candidate seeking a position on the national board called for criminal penalties in Germany to be lifted against Holocaust denial. He was not elected. Dietmar Moews, who sought to be a Pirate Party federal candidate, criticized “world Jewry” and caused a large section of his fellow members at the national meeting to boo him and walk out of the party's conference.

In contrast to the high-tech, web-savvy members of the Pirates, however, the AfD is a bit more wonky. There's at least 30 “Professor Doctor” abbreviations on the party's homepage — teachers of economics, engineers, and finance. But the AfD does mirror the the Pirates in another key way. Both parties are largely defined by a one-issue electoral agenda and are not terribly concerned about foreign policy matters beyond Europe.

To the degree that the AfD expresses positions on non-euro issues, they tend to be vaguely socially conservative. The AfD bemoans that “Germany has too few children” and calls for the Federal Republic to become “children and family friendly,” a strain of American-style conservatism that has led some journalists to label the group the “German Tea Party.”

It is unclear if the AfD will surpass the required 5 percent voter hurdle in September to enter the Bundestag. A late April Forsa poll showed only 2 percent projected voter turnout for the party. The head of the polling institute Forsa, Manfred Güllner, told Stern magazine that the AfD would not endanger Merkel's governing coalition, which has brought together the CDU and its sister party, the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, as well as the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). But let's remember: this party's only been around for a couple months. And in this electoral climate, anything's possible.

Nonetheless, the traditional powerful parties in the Bundestag — the Social Democrats (SPD) and the CDU — are filled with some level of anxiety about the rise of this new protest party. In a detailed report in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in late April, the paper's Berlin-based political correspondent Majid Sattar revealed that the two major parties had conducted opposition research to blunt the growth and attraction of the AfD. Meanwhile, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) — a think tank affiliated with MerkeI's CDU party — issued a study arguing that the AfD should be taken seriously but should not be “upgraded through ongoing public debates.”

Chancellor Merkel won't probably lose that much sleep over the AfD. Germany's unemployment rate hasn't been this low since 1990. Her poll ratings continue to remain solid and she's on track to win a third term. According to an April ZDF poll, Merkel leads her social democratic opponent and main challenger Peer Steinbrück by a 36 percent margin.

And if she prevails on Sept. 22, she'll become the longest serving female head of state in Europe since the late Margaret Thatcher. The AfD might not be able to stop the new Iron Lady but if she intends to govern, she can't really ignore the strain of public sentiment they represent.

Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.