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  • Lorenzo Tendron

The AfD and CDU’s results will decide the European Parliament’s coalitions for the next five years.

Far-right parties are marching on Brussels. More than a century after the March on Rome, Europe seems highly vulnerable to populists once again. Only this time they may well rightfully seize power through elections and a good dose of coalition strategy.


While the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) should establish itself as the core coalition party in 2024, the real battle for power will see the weakened Grand Coalition parties, or centre-left Social Democrats (S&D) and Renew Liberals (RE), against the right-wing and anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group as well as the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group. Although S&D and RE will attempt to coax the leading EPP into committing in their traditional alliance again, the new contenders ECR and ID seem to be greatly appealing to EPP’s leader Manfred Weber. The latter held talks with Italy’s newly-elected Prime Minister Meloni after her party Fratelli d’Italia (ECR group) had just won the Italian legislative elections with a Lega (ID) and Forza Italia (EPP) alliance in September 2022. Forza Italia was supposed to “strengthen the cabinet’s credibility vis-a-vis the EU”, but it could only join the Italian government as a junior partner. Despite Mr. Weber’s right-wing rapprochement, EPP tenors such as Jürgen Hardt harshly criticised Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega parties as representing ideological positions “largely incompatible with the positions of the EPP”. Centre-right party leaders thus hold a mixed approach towards collaborating with far-right parties, although such a suggestion is no longer a taboo subject, particularly when examining political parties’ projected electoral strength in the next European Parliament (EP).


What are the polls saying?

According to the most recent projections in August 2023 by Politico, the centrist parties would lose the most seats to the profit of right-wing and far-right parties.

While the Greens would lose a sizable 24 seats to become the parliament’s second-weakest group at 48 seats, the big winners ECR would gain about 23 seats to reach 89 and become the third-biggest group tied with the Renew liberals. RE on the other hand would drop about twelve seats.


Another notable gain concerns the far-right ID group with a fifteen seats’ increase driven by the German AfD recent surge in the polls to reach 77. The EPP would not leave its leading position despite losing twelve seats to reach 165, with the centre-left S&D retaining its second place with about 145 seats.


What are the coalition prospects?

Who will be the EP’s next king-maker then? The EU’s Grand Coalition traditionally involves the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D and the liberals or Renew group in this case. While these controlled about 76% of the Parliament in 2004, they would now only garner about 57% of the seats twenty years later, thereby still holding a comfortable majority within the EP. However, an ECR, ID and EPP coalition would reach about 48% of the seats and pass the majority threshold with a few liberal and non-attached (NI) members, which is a plausible option as right-wing parties have more vote reserves in the aforementioned NI group. Most importantly, the alternative centre-left coalition (i.e. excluding the EPP and responsible for over ten percent of voted texts in the EP) is likely to lose its majority (from 50.1% to 49.7% of seats). Hence the EPP’s core parties will play a crucial role solidifying or watering down the traditional Grand Alliance in an office-seeking perspective. The German CDU in particular will have unmatched power in this area. Together with other EPP parties most likely to follow the cordon sanitaire’s strategy (in Luxemburg and Belgium), the CDU would garner about 50 to 55 seats, thereby holding a sizable power as a blocking minority in the potential right-wing alternative alliance.

In a policy-seeking perspective however, the second-most frequent collaboration in adopting texts has been gathering a majority of all parliamentary groups, including the ECR and ID (17% of the cases). In forming a blocking majority to reject texts, a more specific right-wing coalition involved the Renew liberals, EPP, ECR and ID groups in 9% of the cases or the third-most frequent configuration. Informal partnerships involving moderate and far-right parties in some areas is therefore an existing reality. While an official alliance involving the EPP, ECR and ID groups as well as some non-attached members is unlikely to be ever formalised, such an ad hoc partnership on some issues seems highly plausible and more likely to occur in the next European Parliament. Even parties who have traditionally rejected far-right parties’ alliances, such as the CDU, seem to start nuancing their positions, following a rise of populism in their own country.


Despite the historic firewall culture (Brandmauer) excluding any far-right party from governing alliances in Germany, the CDU party secretary Friedrich Merz officially broke the taboo for the first time in July 2023, opening the possibility for a collaboration in “local parliaments [...] to jointly shape the city, the country and the district” with the AfD. Facing immediate backlash from numerous CDU officials he retracted that suggestion only one day later. A formal EPP alliance with the ID party thus seems a remote possibility at the European level. Depending on the issues encountered however, the CDU could well pressurise the EPP in temporarily partnering with the ECR and ID groups, as suggested by Friedrich Merz in Germany. The EP groups’ limited media exposure could further encourage such scenarios, as such a collaboration choice will most likely have a negligible impact on the involved parties’ national electoral performance. The CDU’s national relationship with its greatest rival in the polls will be key to understand whether the ID and ECR groups have a chance of teaming up with the EPP on some policy proposals.


The AfD is gaining sizable ground in Germany

Taking a step back, we should focus on the German political landscape and ask ourselves: has the AfD become a significant political force in Germany? Most importantly, has it become a respected and potential governing partner for the CDU?


Merely four years after its creation, the AfD entered the German parliament (Bundestag) as the main opposition group and the third-largest force in 2017. While it fell to the fifth place in the next elections in 2021, it broke electoral records in the East, solidifying its position as the second-largest party in all five East German states (Bundesländer). Since mid-June 2023 some polls have been suggesting the party would become the country’s second-largest party were national elections to be held, trailing the CDU by merely seven percentage points, as of October, 19th 2023. Earlier that month the AfD broke electoral records in two crucial Western Bundesländer: Hesse (Frankfurt) and Bavaria (Munich), arriving second in Munich’s Bundesland and third in Frankfurt’s Bundesland. AfD leaders were quick to proclaim their party had become a national force and was no longer confined to success in the East. That is quite an overstatement. Such results undeniably confirm the AfD is becoming a regional force in Germany, however it remains to be seen whether results will follow in national elections and whether the party can enter the government as a junior partner.


Potential CDU ally?

In a policy-seeking perspective, Merz’ timid opening towards the AfD caused serious indignation within the CDU ranks. Yvonne Magwas, the Bundestag’s vice-president and CDU member put an AfD-CDU alliance to the sword, writing an outraged “the right-wing radicals remain right-wing radicals. For Christian-Democrats the right-wing radicals are always enemies” on X (Twitter). The same discourse was echoed by the Hesse CDU President, Boris Rhein, who highlighted the maintenance of the firewall strategy vis-a-vis the AfD. Bavarian CSU (CDU sister party) President Markus Söder illustrated an ​​irreconcilable moral distance with the AfD, emphasising the party was “anti-democratic” and that the CSU was not ready to risk its “decency and conscience”.


Although an official alliance seems impossible anytime soon in Western Bundesländer as well as on the national level, the CDU has in fact collaborated with the AfD in the Eastern Bundesländer of Thuringia already. During a vote to elect the next President-Minister of the state in February 2020, the AfD and CDU teamed up with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) to oust the left-wing incumbent Minister Bodo Ramelow, thus clearly breaching the official firewall position. Although the FDP elected President resigned three days later following the ensuing national outcry, Thuringia experienced a CDU-AfD collaboration again in October 2023 for a vote over a local property tax cut. Such circumscribed collaboration kindled new legislative ambitions within the AfD ranks, with party co-leader Alice Weidel posting on X “the firewall is history - and Thuringia is just the beginning”, just after the vote.



If the CDU firewall strategy starts crumbling on the national level as well and the AfD becomes more salonfähig, or socially acceptable, then the CDU could well start opening up to an ECR-ID collaboration at the European level. Such partnership seems highly unlikely to happen in the 2024 elections however, particularly when examining the AfD candidate’s background and personality.


A controversial leading candidate: Maximilian Krah

Embroiled in a contract fraud affair earlier this year at the EU Commission and recently exposed as having close ties with a Chinese influence network in October, the lawyer and AfD Spitzenkandidat Maximilian Krah is being scrutinised by the European Public Prosecutor’s office, which could bring criminal charges against him. These fraud allegations as well as reports that Krah’s assistant may have extensive ties with Chinese dissident groups in Germany or that many of his close collaborators received funding from China may well sabotage any attempt to form a governing alliance with the ECR and EPP groups.

Vowing to turn the EU into an anti-migrant “fortress”, the German lawyer has been clearly advocating the AfD’s climate change-denying, Eurosceptic and Russia-friendly program, declaring his party would not compromise on its positions to form a governing alliance or to entice more voters. Despite such an authoritative declaration, the AfD program has been diluted from the start to attract more voters and to possibly find more common ground with the ECR’s positions. Tino Chrupalla, the other AfD co-leader, clearly stated that his party is “ready for compromise, but not at any price”. A price they are willing to pay for example is ditching Dexit. Although it had originally been envisaged to promote Germany’s exit from the EU, the proposal was rephrased to changing the EU into a “federation of European nations”. Germany will therefore not leave the EU anytime soon.


Mr. Krah’s election as the party’s leading candidate by 65% of the votes is also a clear sign that the most extreme AfD faction is gaining extensive power within the party ranks. The wing faction, or Der Flügel as it is known in Germany, has been supported by the lawyer in promoting nativist and xenophobic views. In a speech with the faction’s founder Björn Höcke in February, the German lawyer stated his ethnic-exclusive definition of Europe in those words: “The Europe we have in mind: that is the Germanic people, the Romans and the Slavs”. Earlier discriminatory declarations from Höcke and his disciples impelled the German agency for the Constitution’s protection (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) to classify Der Flügel as “proven to be extremist in nature” and as a danger to the constitution in March 2020, leading to its official dissolution the following month. While Der Flügel no longer officially exists, Björn Höcke still leads the party’s regional force in Thuringia, and has the support of all Eastern AfD groups, which represent the party’s core vote reserve. Der Flügel’s spirit thus lives on, as Höcke paraphrased Nazi rhetoric in July 2023 declaring “this EU must die so that the true Europe may live”, whilst another AfD official Christian Lüth shamelessly proposed to “shoot” migrants or “gas them, as you wish” in September 2020. It seems the faction’s views will not be eradicated before long.


Mr. Krah does not shy away from his true opinions either, actively participating in a speakers’ event organized by the think tank Institut für Staatspolitik (Institute for State Policy) in September and moderated by the German ethnocentric ideologist Götz Kubitschek, dubbed “the Prophet of Germany’s New Right” by the New York Times in 2017. Asserting such xenophobic and revisionist views that true Germans are “being replaced and exchanged” with immigrants or that Germany’s “pathological” way of dealing with its Nazi past is conducive to national self-hatred, Kubitschek’s think tank has been classified as “proven to be extremist in nature”, just as Höcke’s Flügel was. The German lawyer’s unpalatable background may thus prove a deal-breaker to many EPP members.


The AfD’s overwhelming media power

The true power of these populist and ethnic-exclusive messages however resides in the AfD’s towering media presence: with 362000 followers on YouTube, the AfD-Bundestagsfraktion account dwarfs all its political adversaries. The corresponding CDU account only numbers 4020 followers while the centre-left SPD gathers only 3560 followers. The cherry on the cake? Social media algorithms offer more exposure to the AfD’s posting content, regardless of followers’ numbers. As Sciences Po professor Giuliano Da Empoli writes in his book “The Engineers of Chaos”: “social media [...] mostly feed from negative emotions as these guarantee the greatest participation”. Therefore algorithms will propose content that is “susceptible to keep [the audience] longer” on the platform, seeking to increase engagement. The AfD perfectly understood that by playing on its electors’ “aspirations and fears”, thereby creating a loyal online community of “elector-consumers”. Such fan base is prone to “more and more inhibitions” from the party’s aggressive rhetoric, according to Die.Insider research group, and are constantly being fed with AfD content portraying them as “victims of a system that must be toppled”.

Mr. Krah himself is no stranger to sparking media hysteria with politically incorrect statements, most notably on social media, offering more visibility to the AfD to younger generations. He published a record-breaking video reaching almost 85000 likes on his Tik Tok account in June, offering masculinity advice to young men to succeed in love: “Don’t vote for the Greens [...] above all don’t let people tell you that you should be kind, soft, weak and left-wing. Real men are right-wing”.


With EU elections around the corner, Mr. Krah may want to divert the media’s attention away from his controversial past to feed them with more populist emotional language, hoping the CDU will not mind him too much and that voters’ numbers will follow. The next European Parliament however might not forget who he really is.



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