What about the economy, stupid? Winning strategy, favourable breeding grounds and internal divisions: the German populist radical right AfD in its European context

After only two years as a “single issue Eurosceptic party” (Taggart, 1998, p. 368), the AfD developed into a full-fledged member of the European populist radical right party family. Clearly, the party has radicalized in the cultural dimension, appeals to voters who want to flag out their anti-establishment protest, and the intensified refugee immigration to Germany has additionally catalysed its electoral success. On the contrary and typical for the literature on European populist radical right parties, the role that the economic dimension played in the rise of the party family’s German offshoot remains largely in the dark. This dissertation confirms that as for many European populist radical right parties, also for the AfD, the economic dimension is “secondary” (Mudde, 2007, p. 119). However, the empirical analyses also reveal that the AfD employs its subordinate issue strategically in line with the political opportunity structure and its electorate’s demands. The party’s anti-statist (ordo-)liberal economic positioning matches the preferences of even the deprived layers of its electorate – an exception within the European party family – and constitutes an important pillar for the party’s electoral success. What is more, the AfD successfully plants its seed in economically distressed regions and municipalities that are disappointed by poor public services. The party lights up the narratives of undeserving immigrants, widely shared in the German society and tabloid press. In fact, all over Europe different varieties of welfare chauvinism encroach upon economically left-leaning groups of voters. Due to their opposing economic policy demands, the AfD has not yet found its way into these electoral layers, however, increasing welfare chauvinist policy proposals signal first rapprochements. In the end, the unique German populist radical right’s economic policy outline allows a glimpse on the potential dividing lines within the highly diverse European group of parties. The AfD’s most recent demand for ‘Dexit’, the German exit from the European Union, shows the difficulties to hold together the populist radical right party family: Not only does the AfD oppose the loss of German sovereignty, but its nativist core ideology also bars the party from contributing billions of German tax money to other (mostly Eastern and Southern European) countries. Fierce disputes within the party family over economic policies and the distribution of EU funding are the price for a rigid nativism and the room to manoeuvre European populist radical right parties maintained in their secondary dimension: economics.


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