IT IS a well-established truth that fast-rising political parties outside the political mainstream are prone to division. The National Front (FN) in France has a latitudinal split: its northern outposts are marked by economic statism, its southern ones by a robust authoritarianism on identity and social questions. Podemos in Spain recently lived through an operatic showdown between its radical leader and his more pragmatic deputy. UKIP in Britain these days is less a political party than a pub fight with a logo.
So it is with the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party has a certain sex appeal in the Anglo-Saxon press, its rise “proving” how doomed Angela Merkel is after her refugee gambit (spoiler: she’s not doomed). Yet as with other such parties it is also a giant bundle of mutual resentment, tension and instability. Recent weeks have seen all of these trends intensify as the party’s poll numbers have dwindled. It now grazes lows not seen since before the refugee crisis.
Today’s news is that Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in the state of Brandenburg, does not want to be a “Spitzenkandidat” (or “lead candidate”) in the coming general election. This is something: Mr Gauland is the grand old man of AfD politics; part of the quartet that in 2012 created the anti-euro electoral platform that would develop into today’s party. He has tracked the AfD’s political evolution like no other, having started off as a respectable pillar of Germany’s conservative intelligentsia and ended up as a provocative voice of the populist right.
His rejection has less to do with ideology than with power. The AfD is led by Frauke Petry, who ousted Bernd Lucke (one of Mr Gauland’s fellow founders) in 2015 and subsequently set the party on a more starkly nationalist, anti-refugee course. But now she—along with her partner Marcus Pretzell, an AfD Member of European Parliament with close links to other European right-populist parties—wants to lay a long-term path to power.
That implies two imperatives. The first, borrowed from Austria’s Freedom Party, is to make the party acceptable as a coalition partner, starting at the state level. Which means reining in liabilities like Björn Höcke, its leader in the Thuringian parliament who claimed Germany should be less apologetic about its Nazi past, and writing anti-racism into the party’s programme (to be finalised at a conference in Cologne at the end of the month). The second, borrowed from the French FN, is to give the AfD a sharper, more distinctive face. That means raising Ms Petry on a plinth as the party’s dominant Spitzenkandidat.
Mr Gauland’s flounce is linked to both moves. Earlier this year he objected to Ms Petry’s attempts to expel Mr Höcke. Allies of his call her detoxification strategy a risk to party unity. And today he claims she is not interested in building a leadership team, telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “I reached out a hand to her. She rejected it.” Some party insiders claim that its liberal and nationalist wings have more in common with each other than they do with the “power-obsessed” Ms Petry and Mr Pretzell. Mr Gauland, it seems, shares this perspective.
All of which says something broader about populist politics. Its protagonists are more overtly ideological than their mainstream rivals: think Ms Le Pen, Heinz-Christian Strache, Nigel Farage, Ms Petry and their tirades against migrants. But in practice they are utterly realistic. They are chancers. They know they run parties containing views unacceptable to many voters. So their jobs are defined by a Janus-like balance between invoking and stoking those views (among the base) and reframing and refining them (among the electorate). And they are often remarkably malleable. Take Ms Petry, who won her job by arguing that the AfD should move rightwards, but is now battling colleagues to make it more acceptable to mainstream opinion. That is the thing with wooing the mob: it enslaves the self.