It was a rising star of the far right. Now it’s a scandal magnet.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) party co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla in Berlin, Germany May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse (REUTERS)
Alternative for Germany (AfD) party co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla in Berlin, Germany May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse (REUTERS)

Summary

Accused of extremism, corruption and infiltration by Chinese spies and Russian propagandists, Germany’s AfD has been hemorrhaging support.

BERLIN—Just months ago, the AfD was on a roll. With all-time best poll ratings, the German far-right party appeared headed for record election scores this year, promising to extend a winning streak for nationalist and populist parties across the region.

Now, an avalanche of scandals is clouding the party’s national and European ambitions. After years of thriving on controversy, the AfD is seeing voters pull away and risks being relegated to a purely regional force concentrated in Germany’s former communist east.

Speaking in her sixth-floor office overlooking Berlin’s monumental Reichstag building, Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-chairwoman, acknowledged the difficulties.

“Like no other party, we are facing an institutional assault," she said, pointing to what she called biased public-sector media. “And it’s having an impact on our electoral chances."

Last Monday, a court ruled that Germany’s intelligence agency could investigate the party as a suspected extremist organization—a move that could lead to its ban. The next day, another judge fined a popular AfD leader for using a banned Nazi slogan in a speech.

On Thursday, the party said investigators had searched the office of an AfD lawmaker who is the party’s number-two candidate for this year’s European Parliament election, as part of what prosecutors said was a corruption investigation involving Russia.

Other prosecutors are also conducting a preliminary probe into the party’s top EU election candidate following reports he had accepted payments from Russia and China. Last month, the candidate’s parliamentary assistant was detained on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

“It’s definitely having an impact, because at the core, a politician and a party’s most valuable capital is their credibility and that’s what’s being undermined here," said Weidel, referring to the corruption allegations.

The AfD remains the second or third most popular party in Germany, depending on the polls, amid voter frustration with the ruling coalition, but its ratings have dropped from 24% in December to 16%, according to a recent survey by polling group Forsa.

Forsa head Manfred Güllner said the succession of scandals was the main reason for the ratings drop, causing “some who had turned to the party because of their rejection of the government to leave again."

The rough patch began late last year after Correctiv, an investigative publication, reported that senior party members discussed the forced deportation of migrants, including some who had become German citizens—a policy that would be in breach of the constitution. Tens of thousands took to the streets in protest. The AfD even drew a rebuke from Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right Rassemblement National party, an AfD ally in the European Parliament.

Weidel said that deporting German citizens was never discussed. “That’s complete nonsense. No one wants that. That would be unconstitutional and, as far as I’m concerned, a breach of human rights," she said.

With stacks of the Economist and a George Orwell collection of essays on her shelf, Weidel is an unlikely figurehead for one of Europe’s most hard-line far-right parties. Her résumé paints her as an elite globalist of the kind AfD politicians revile in their speeches. She is most animated when discussing exchange-rate mechanisms, fiscal theories and the euro’s design flaws.

An economics Ph.D., Weidel worked at Goldman Sachs and in consulting before joining the party’s leadership in 2015. She lives in a same-sex relationship with a Sri Lankan-born Swiss film producer. The couple and their two sons split their time between southern Germany and Switzerland.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a Green Party leader and opponent of Weidel, has expressed admiration in private for the AfD leader’s parliamentary oratory, according to people familiar with the minister’s thinking.

While she is the face of the AfD to the outside world, Weidel, born in western Germany, doesn’t have full control over the party, whose regional leaders in the former communist East, the party’s stronghold, exert considerable influence.

Founded in 2013 by fiscally conservative economic professors to protest the bailout of over-indebted Greece, the AfD morphed into an anti-immigration and antiestablishment party. It now rejects the notion of man-made climate change and wants Germans to vote on leaving the euro. Some of its leaders want Germany to stop atoning for the Holocaust.

The AfD’s chapters in the eastern states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are classified as extremist organizations by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency and are under constant surveillance. These regions are also where the AfD is most popular.

Other nationalist parties have mellowed over time, sanding off their ideological edges to woo moderate voters. After ditching its anti-EU positions and embracing economic populism, France’s Rassemblement National is projected to win the 2027 presidential election. Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni became prime minister on the back of a similar exercise.

“If you read the AfD’s official program, you could say that’s a classical national-conservative party," said Christian Stecker, a political-science professor at Darmstadt Technical University. “But look into the chat groups, go to the party conferences, listen to the market-square speeches…and you see much clearer far-right positions."

This week, Björn Höcke, the party’s popular parliamentary leader in Thuringia, was fined for knowingly using a banned slogan of Hitler’s SA militia during a speech. On the same day, a different court rejected an appeal by the AfD seeking to stop Germany’s domestic intelligence agency from investigating it for suspected extremism.

Höcke has said he didn’t use the phrase knowingly and his lawyer has appealed the court’s decision.

Weidel said the AfD is a target of a campaign by left-leaning journalists. But she also betrays some frustration with Höcke and other AfD provocateurs. “The AfD has different currents. Mr. Höcke represents one of these currents and we have to accept that," she said.

The latest AfD scandals could prove the most damaging. Last month, German authorities detained the parliamentary assistant of Maximilian Krah, the AfD’s lead European election candidate, on suspicion that the Chinese-born German national was spying for Beijing. Krah later fired the assistant and said he had no knowledge of the allegations.

The detained assistant and his lawyer couldn’t be reached for comment.

In an unrelated case, the Dresden prosecutor-general’s office told The Wall Street Journal it was conducting two preliminary investigations into news reports that Krah, a member of the European Parliament, had received payments from Russian and Chinese sources.

Krah told the Journal “there have obviously been no payments in the sense you mentioned" and noted that his parliamentary immunity remained intact and that he was subject to a preliminary probe, not a full-fledged investigation.

On Thursday, prosecutors in Munich said they had opened a corruption investigation into a member of the German parliament and searched his offices. Weidel later confirmed Petr Bystron, a Czech-born member of the German parliament and number two on the party’s EU election list, was the target and that parliament had lifted his immunity.

The investigation was prompted by Czech media reports accusing the lawmaker and others of receiving payments from a now-sanctioned Czech-based Russian propaganda outfit. Bystron’s parliamentary office didn’t respond to a request for comment. He has repeatedly denied accepting money from Russian sources.

Weidel said the AfD leadership had demanded written explanations from Krah and Bystron and was urging them to take legal action against their accusers. “Should we get evidence that confirms the accusations, we would of course act and immediately expel all affected people from the party," she added. “Until then, the presumption of innocence applies."

Despite its difficulties, pollsters say the AfD continues to appeal to voters beyond its far-right base. It is still more popular than any other far-right party in postwar Germany and while its ratings have suffered at the national level, they have remained stable in its eastern German strongholds, where it could still finish in first place at three regional elections later this year.

“The AfD has a substantial share of loyal supporters who will stick to the party no matter what," said Manès Weisskircher, a political scientist at the Technical University Dresden. “Convincing them to vote differently is a long-term challenge for other parties."

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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