On Sunday, regional elections were held in North Rhein-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen or NRW in German) and the results were striking for two reasons. First, the center-left Social Democratic party fell significantly in comparison to 2012, from 39% to 31% in Germany’s largest state (as measured by Infratest Dimap below). Their national government partners the Christian Democrats (CDU) outperformed them, in the latest test of the appeal of SPD’s new leader Martin Schulz versus current CDU chancellor Angela Merkel.
Secondly, two parties made significant gains: the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, which will sit in the state’s parliament for the first time.
Its been a good few weeks for the AfD, with their success also being reflected at the national level, as this opinion poll from Ipsos demonstrates. AfD has risen to become Germany’s third biggest party.
This upswing comes after AfD’s party congress in Cologne in late April, where they voted to go a new direction in party leadership. Frauke Petry, the popular party chief who garnered widespread media attention as well as comparisons to Donald Trump, has been replaced by two people to stand as candidates (“Spitzenkandidaten”) for the party in September elections: AfD founder Alexander Gauland and investment banker Alice Weidel. This was a major rejection for the internationally well-known Petry, who’s proposal for a “Realpolitik” revamp of the AfD was not even debated at the party congress.
Thus far, the party has taken a hard-right line on migration issues, calling for the closure of German borders and an end to social-welfare access for people seeking asylum, among other things. Are Gauland and Weidel likely to alter this course? We’ll be taking a closer look at the new candidate duo and their influence on the AfD platform, starting with AfD founder Gauland.
Alexander Gauland: A Focus on Education and “Self-Preservation”
Alexander Gauland is a conservative journalist and politician who founded the AfD together with Konrad Adam and Bernd Lucke after the Greek financial crises and leads the party in Brandenburg. Born in Chemnitz (former East Germany) he sought and received asylum in West Germany in 1959, fleeing after high school. He then studied at the University of Marburg, where he received his doctorate. He served as the state secretary of Hesse under Walter Wallman, and is the author of various history and political books, such as Instructions for Conservatives (2002) and more recently Worry about the West? A Debate (2017).
According to FAZ, as state secretary under Wallman, Gauland traveled to Hong Kong in 1979 to bring 250 Vietnamese people who had fled from the war on boats to Hesse as refugees. This is quite a contrast to his position in recent years, where he has stated that boats containing people seeking asylum should be turned away (in violation of international law). However, in Hong Kong Gauland himself allegedly hand-picked which individuals would come to Germany, selecting highly skilled workers that he thought could easily integrate, such as watchmakers and mechanics. One could conclude from this that Gauland is not against migration, but wants Germany to welcome only people with high skills or education levels. This view is consistent with the original AfD party platform, which says “We welcome highly-skilled immigrants with a distinct willingness to integrate.”
But at some point after his mission in Hong Kong, he seems to have stopped believing that there are highly skilled or educated people among migrants to Germany.
This can be seen in a recent press release about the German school system. Gauland said:
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the vast majority of the millions of migrants who come to us are not skilled at all but illiterate and very low-educated people*…. Germany does not need non-integrable illiterates, which are left to the welfare state for a lifetime. We need highly qualified specialists, which we have to choose according to a points system ourselves. Everything else hurts our society.”
(*It is unclear what Gauland is basing his statement on, and should be noted that prior to the civil war, the adult literacy rate of Syria was 84% and primary school enrollment was over 99%, according to UNICEF.)
AfD’s newly agreed upon campaign program, which details their platform for the upcoming election in September, echoes Gauland’s doubts that any of the people in the current wave of migration can integrate. The AfD’s immigration program now starts by detailing a “demographic problem” between Africa/the Middle East and Europe, and says the aim of their immigration and asylum policy is not self-selection, but rather self-preservation.
The aim of the AfD is self-preservation, not self-destruction of our state and people. The future of Germany and Europe must be secured in the long term. We want to leave our descendants a country, which is still recognizable as our Germany.
The new platform strays away from talking about who is welcome in favor of who must be kept out, and takes a much stricter tact, echoing Gauland’s press release claiming that a majority of people seeking asylum are illiterate and unable to integrate (again, without offering evidence.)
The borders must be closed immediately. The unregulated mass immigration into our country and its social systems by mostly professionally unqualified asylum seekers is to be terminated immediately. A successful integration of all these people, including a considerable proportion of illiterates, is impossible.
The campaign platform goes on to call for an end to jus soli (birthright) citizenship and a reduced number of people with dual citizenship, both measures that would apply to people who already here, regardless of whether their parents arrived through the asylum process.
This sounds like the Gauland not of 1979 but of 2016, who evidently takes issue not only with people who have migrated but also with people whose parents have immigrated to Germany, like Jerome Boateng, the football star who was born in Berlin to a German mother and a father originally from Ghana. Talking to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Gauland said about the German player: “People find him good as a football player. But they wouldn’t like to have a Boateng as a neighbor.” Thus even a uniquely skilled individual like Boateng is viewed as potentially not belonging (though he was born in Germany.)
The AfD campaign platform seems to have shifted slightly to allow for Gauland’s ethno-nationalist views to take precedence: migration is viewed as a threat to German identity, whether the person is highly skilled, integrated, or even born in Germany. As Gauland himself sought asylum in West Germany and managed to receive an education there and succeed to high ranks of the German government, it is worth asking why he now assumes the same trajectory is impossible for others.