Ask most people to picture a German right-wing populist, and their mental image would probably not be one of a much-traveled, multilingual consultant to startups. Still less an openly gay woman with two children in a same-sex union.
But then, if the last two years have taught the world anything, it’s not to be surprised by paradoxes such as Alice Weidel.
Weidel is the new face of the Alternative für Deutschland, the right-wing movement that flourished in the backlash to the 2015 migrant crisis, when Angela Merkel opened the borders to over 1 million asylum-seekers and other migrants. When Germans vote for a new Bundestag in September, Weidel will—at least notionally—be the AfD’s candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor.
The common assumption is that a well-educated, well turned-out, high-earning and articulate young woman living an alternative domestic life (she raises two children with her partner, a Swiss film producer) will make it easier for more Germans to identify with the AfD. And in an interview with the Financial Times, published Friday, she was quick to stress the point, arguing: “The fact that I was elected top candidate shows how tolerant it is.”
However, the complete absence of her family from her website suggests it’s not something she’s keen to play up. So in terms of being politically out, it puts her somewhere between Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch populist who often mentioned his homosexuality to highlight the cultural clash with Islam, and Austria’s Jörg Haider, who many believe stayed firmly in the closet all his life, unable to square it with his base’s support for conventional family values.
The same logic applies to Weidel’s approach to the euro and the Eurozone. The fact that someone with a doctorate in economics, who has Goldman Sachs and PIMCO parent Allianz on her résumé, is the one making attacks on “Socialist planning” in the shape of the European Central Bank and Angela Merkel’s “Save the World politics” part of everyday debate on the economy, makes it harder to dismiss the arguments as the fevered rantings of bitter retirees who still hanker for the Deutsche Mark.
That, at least, is the idea. But as the august publication Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (which zealously guards the conservative space in the German political spectrum for Merkel’s CDU) argues, appearances can be deceptive. Her Islam-skeptic reflex is well-enough honed for her to launch immediately into a critique of a prominent Muslim community leader who called for calm after a recent bomb attack on the Borussia Dortmund soccer team without waiting to know the assailant’s identity. Police later charged an eastern European immigrant with having planned the attack for financial gain (after making side bets on Dortmund’s results).
There is no sign yet that the public is buying into Weidel as a force for softening or broadening the party: the AfD’s support in national opinion polls has slumped from 16% to 10% in the last eight months, as the urgency of the migrant crisis has faded. Fewer than 6% of people voted for it in elections last week in the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and it’s polling at only 6.4% in the much bigger and more important state of North Rhine-Westphalia ahead of state elections on Sunday. History is against her too.
The challenge that faces Weidel is essentially the same one that proved too much for Marine Le Pen in France, and for Weidel’s predecessor in the AfD, Frauke Petry. How to make it acceptable to the masses, without losing the energy of its activists?
Le Pen signalled after her election defeat that she wanted to ditch the toxic Front National brand and refound the party as a more moderate conservative entity. But the AfD’s leadership is making no such concessions. Petry stood down after losing a power struggle with its more extreme wing, exemplified by Björn Höcke. That bloc is still shot through with beyond-the-pale attitudes that reek of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party. Bernd Pachal, a senior official in the party’s Berlin chapter, recently referred to the “wise policies” of Reynhard Heydrich while Nazi governor of Bohemia (Heydrich is more notable as the architect of the ‘Final Solution’ – the extermination of European Jewry); Jens Maier, another senior AfD man, defended Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik as acting out of “desperation” against the selling-out of his country by mainstream politicians. Weidel chose to make peace with Höcke’s followers rather than pass up the opportunity to head the party’s ticket in September.
The reason is that the FN is a lot closer to power than the AfD, and has everything to gain by making compromises with the mainstream: Le Pen did, after all, attract 34% of Sunday’s vote. By contrast, the AfD is, at least for now, too small to force mainstream parties to deal with it. It therefore has less to gain by marginalizing its core voters. The economic recovery in Europe, and centrist momentum after elections in the Netherlands and France, will keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Given the traditional fractiousness of fringe parties, it will be a surprise if the AfD sticks with Weidel until the next crisis revives its fortunes.