- Top Story
- or Log in
Frauke Petry, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), has proved so inflammatory that she’s earned the nickname “Adolfina”. Despite this, the AfD made significant gains in local elections this weekend.
With about 20.8% of votes, the anti-immigrant AfD came second in eastern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern regional election this weekend: beating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party into third on her home turf.
The centre-left Social-Democrats (SPD), who scored 30.6% of the vote, came first and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was pushed into a humiliating third at 19%.
The election doesn’t bode well for Merkel, who must be grinding her teeth at the smiling election posters featuring Petry: the vote in a north-eastern state is considered a key test before Germany’s main parliamentary elections in 2017.
Petry told German press agency DPA that she put the win down to Merkel’s
“catastrophic migration policies”, following on from Merkel’s decision to open its borders to approximately one million refugees last year.
It’s true that the AfD is most well-known for its anti-immigrant stance, which Petry has pushed since she took the reins of the party a little over a year ago after a bitter power struggle with the AfD’s co-founder and first leader, Bernd Lucke.
Attacking a football hero
Petry herself has been widely criticised for her controversial statements, most of which have to do with immigration. In one widely publicised interview with a German newspaper in January, she said German border police should be allowed to use arms “if necessary” to stop illegal border crossings by migrants. Petry has maintained that what she stated is in fact already Germany law — which allows for armed force if necessary – and that she personally thinks resorting to force should be avoided if possible. However, the media widely reported that she advocated shooting at refugees.
Petry also provoked another scandal after criticising German football hero Mesut Özil in June. Among other complaints, she slammed him for posting a photo of a pilgrimage to the holy Muslim city of Mecca and accused him of not singing the national anthem.
These statements are not gaffes made in the heat of the moment. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Petry stressed that provocation is a tool that she isn’t afraid of using. In that way, many argue that she resembles American presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“We tried very hard at the beginning of 2013 to be heard with lots of very sensible thinking and arguments, and we simply couldn’t get through to anyone,” she told the UK’s Guardian. “You put forward a provocative argument, and sometimes you are given the chance to explain what you meant. I know it’s a difficult choice to make but sometimes, for us, it feels like the only way.”
Similar to Nazis?
Critics of the AfD have said its rhetoric has frightening similarities to the Nazi regime, especially after the party’s draft manifesto was leaked in March which contained policies including incentivising German women to have three or more children, imprisoning drug addicts and people with mental health issues who did not respond to therapy. It also contained clear jabs at the Muslim community, including the banning of minarets and niqabs. Petry shrugged off this controversy and has since said that these plans were “nothing official’.
Still, critics worry about what Petry actually stands for. German newspaper Der Spiegel— which Petry claimed nicknamed her Adolfina — said the very existence of the AfD raised serious questions “as to whether Germany has truly learned the lessons of World War II and the Nazi dictatorship”.
Yet Petry’s headline grabbing rhetoric has worked. While the AfD was primarily founded as a eurosceptic party in 2013, it started making huge gains last year under Petry’s new provocative leadership by capitalising on the growing fears among some voters that the large influx of refugees would fundamentally change Germany.
The closing of the Balkans route as well as an increase in border security at Europe’s frontiers have contributed to a drastic decrease in the number of refugees entering Europe in 2016. Keeping up with the current worries, the AfD has shifted its message from stopping the flow of refugees to stopping the “Islamification” of Germany, a fear that has grown over the past year with the acceptance of so many new arrivals. In this sense, the AfD aligns itself with the hardline far-right Pegida movement, which is known for demonstrations against immigrants, particularly Muslims.
AfD does have other policies — like giving the individual more freedom from the state — but the frequent inflammatory comments about immigration made by party officials dominate media coverage and the public consciousness.
A woman’s rise to power
Interestingly, Petry, age 40, could have been considered a refugee at one time in her life.
Petry was born in East Germany, but when she was a teenager, her father managed to get a tourist visa for West Germany. He brought over his wife and two daughters and they set up a new life there. Petry has said that she made an effort to lose her eastern accent to blend in with her new classmates.
Like Merkel, Petry has a science background. She studied chemistry at Reading University in the UK and found work as a research chemist. Later, she started a company that manufactures environmentally friendly polyurethanes, before moving into politics.
Petry has also moved her personal life into the spotlight. Last year, Petry announced that she was ending her marriage to her husband, a Lutheran pastor, and went public with her new relationship with Markus Pretzell, an outspoken AfD member of the European Parliament. Each of them have four children.
The AfD’s official press organ has praised, unabashedly, Petry’s physical appearance, even likening her to Audrey Hepburn. She has also been presented as the “smiling face” of the party.
It’s hard to know whether these glossy images, this media attention and this initial success at the polls will be able to translate into real power for the AfD. While it has worked to gain an angry, grassroots support, for the time being, other German parties have refused to form coalitions with the AfD, which is still too extreme for the mainstream.
But it’s safe to say that Merkel will frown each time she sees Petry’s “smiling face” and all it stands for.