Intermittently over the last two years there have been stories about how far-right parties around the world were taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to expand their reach and attract new support with a narrative of opposition to public health measures.
There’s no doubt that that’s the line most of them have adopted, although it’s unclear how much it was a strategic decision and how much just the way that their supporters dragged them. But either way, it doesn’t seem to have done them much good. The evidence so far suggests that Covid-denialism is costing them more support than it’s gaining them.
Germany is a prime example. For a few years, its far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), seemed to be on an inexorable growth trend. In 2017 it entered the federal parliament with 12.6% of the vote, and in the 2019 Thuringian election its 23.4% was enough to give it and the far left a majority, raising uncomfortable memories of the 1930s.
But since then it has all been downhill. The seven elections since have all recorded a decline in AfD’s support: down 0.8% in Hamburg, 5.4% in Baden-Württemberg, 4.3% in Rhineland-Palatinate, 3.4% in Saxony-Anhalt, 6.2% in Berlin, 4.1% in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, and down 2.3% at last September’s federal election.
So it’s no surprise that AfD might decide that it needs to do something different. What it’s doing, however, is shifting further to the right.
A couple of years ago I outlined the story of how AfD had gradually drifted rightwards, interrupted at that time by the election of two leaders who were seen as relative moderates, Jörg Meuthen and Tino Chrupalla – seeing off a challenge from the hard right. Chrupalla, however, turned out not to be very moderate at all, and the relationship between the two became increasingly strained. Meuthen narrowly survived a motion of no-confidence at the 2020 party conference.
Last October, after the federal election, Meuthen threw in the towel, saying he would not recontest the leadership. Then last week he announced that he was leaving the party altogether, saying that his efforts to change its direction had failed and that he saw “totalitarian overtones” in the positions that it was now taking.
Meuthen deserves only a limited amount of sympathy; he was himself a key figure in taking the party to the right at an earlier stage of the process. (He is also under investigation in a long-running scandal for allegedly accepting illegal campaign donations.) But it is not only on the left that the revolution devours its own children.
The problem that AfD and other parties like it have is that their most active and highly-motivated supporters – most recently, the anti-vaxers and other Covid conspiracy theorists – are the ones furthest from the political mainstream and therefore most likely to alienate the mass of voters. A small but committed percentage of the population looks very impressive when it’s massed in the streets or storming the Capitol, but that doesn’t do much good at the ballot box.
Meuthen sees a future for AfD only as a regional party in the eastern part of Germany. It’s possible that the Christian Democrats will move to occupy some of the “moderate far right” territory that it vacates, or another group may emerge to fill the gap. (Last year the liberal FDP seemed to be pitching itself a little to the Covid-denialists, but now that it is in government that will be less of an option.)
And with an election approaching in Australia, it will be interesting to how big an impact the anti-health brigade makes at the polls.