Dispatch

The Coronavirus Has Paralyzed Europe’s Far-Right

The continent’s borders are closed, as extreme nationalists always wanted—but they’re one of the pandemic's victims anyway.

Alexander Gauland (foreground), the parliamentary group co-leader of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany, and members of his party's parliamentary group attend a session at the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, in Berlin on March 25.
Alexander Gauland (foreground), the parliamentary group co-leader of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany, and members of his party's parliamentary group attend a session at the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, in Berlin on March 25. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here and subscribe to our newsletters here.

BERLIN—For the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), getting near-constant attention and turning it into political momentum is not usually a problem. Through its politicians’ innate talent for provocation, their relentless focus on refugee and immigration issues, and their countless frustration-filled social media posts about government failures, the party has managed to consistently dominate headlines and hold disproportionate sway over the direction of political debate in Germany.

AfD politicians are still tweeting anti-refugee messages and still criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. But in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, with more than 125,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Germany and citizens largely sequestered at home, people don’t seem to be listening the way they used to.

Far-right parties that are in power, to be sure, have already used the coronavirus as an opportunity to push through further authoritarian measures: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has passed legislation that significantly expands his emergency powers without an end date, and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is pushing ahead with a May presidential election despite the fact that its lockdown effectively prevents an actual campaign from taking place.

But those currently in opposition, like the AfD, are facing a new dilemma: As voters turn overwhelmingly to government officials and experts to lead them through the crisis, they’ve lost the spotlight they’ve long depended on.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Ironically, this newfound situation comes despite the fact that such parties—which have long advocated for a Europe with internal borders and strong nation-states that look out for their own citizens first—have actually in the short term gotten much of what they wanted. Still, no longer able to dominate the political discussion the way they usually do as the outbreak rages on, they’re now struggling to find attention and a coherent message.

“This crisis is not like the other crises that the AfD has benefited from, the euro crisis and the refugee crisis,” said Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant and expert on the AfD’s communication and rhetorical tactics. “Both crises had an enemy which was an outsider … but now it’s a virus, and it’s spreading from within. The default populist narrative—us versus them, insiders versus outsiders—doesn’t work anymore.”

Germany is perhaps the best example of this newfound dynamic and how quickly things shifted: Even just a few weeks before the coronavirus became the main topic of discussion, the country was still deeply embroiled in a debate about the AfD’s direct and indirect political influence. In early February, two right-leaning parties—including Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—voted with the AfD to defeat a left-wing governor in the central state of Thuringia. The taboo-breaking vote triggered the resignation of Merkel’s chosen successor in the CDU and opened a period of national soul-searching about the AfD’s role in German politics and society. That debate was compounded later that month when a right-wing extremist shot and killed nine peopleoverwhelmingly of foreign descentin two shisha bars in the city of Hanau, raising questions about how the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric contributes to right-wing extremist violence.

These topics, deeply emotional in Germany, felt then as if they’d dominate the political discussion for months to come. And then came the coronavirus, which quickly claimed a monopoly on citizens’ collective attention spans. At first, AfD politicians cheered the closed borders and stronger national focus: Beatrix von Storch, among the party’s leaders, said the virus proved the “failure of border-free globalization” and called for the new border controls to remain permanent.

Since then, however, they’ve spent recent weeks jumping from argument to argument. The party and its politicians have, among other things, criticized Merkel for not responding to the outbreak quickly enough; said her measures were too harsh and authoritarian; gotten into an intra-party fight over a proposed split between its more moderate and far-right wings; blasted gender studies programs at German universities; and called for churches to be open on Easter Sunday in spite of the pandemic.

When AfD politicians last week unveiled their 10-point policy paper on combating the coronavirus, it looked, with some small exceptions, largely similar to the kinds of measures other parties and politicians were proposing. Increasing testing capacity, producing additional protective equipment for health workers, and protecting high-risk citizens are hardly partisan or novel suggestions.

On social media, the party’s main vehicle for communication with its supporters, their normally strong and active base seems less enthused. Hillje, who examined AfD social media figures for the three weeks leading up to the coronavirus situation and the three weeks since it began dominating headlines, found that their posts have been receiving barely half the engagement they normally do. What’s more, posts about the crisis itself were among the least likely to see likes, shares, or comments from supporters.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s steady, no-nonsense presence seems to be exactly what Germans want right now. In a survey released by the German broadcaster ZDF last week, an overwhelming 80 percent approved of Merkel’s handling of the crisis, and an even higher 88 percent approved of the government’s work during this time. As a result, Merkel’s CDU has gained back significant ground in the national opinion polls, while the AfD is barely breaking double digits (and indeed fell to 9 percent in some surveys).

“Now during a health crisis, where a range of experts have become important again … [far-right parties] actually have very little say, except in those countries where they form part of the government,” said Ruth Wodak, an expert on far-right rhetoric at the University of Vienna and Lancaster University.

Though the situation is perhaps clearest in Germany, the AfD’s counterparts in countries across Europe are facing the same challenges. In neighboring Austria, the far-right Freedom Party’s messaging has been similarly inconsistent; posts on the party’s Facebook page have included railing against fines for violating Austria’s coronavirus restrictions, defending Hungary’s Orban, calling for distance from the European Union, and telling people to stop having parties. In Italy, the far-right League’s Matteo Salvini—who, as of a government shuffle last year, no longer serves as the country’s interior minister—has resorted to spreading debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus. Both parties have lost ground in opinion polls since the crisis began.

Though these forces are struggling for relevance at the moment, they may find more fertile ground for their message once the immediate threat of the virus recedes. As the discussion shifts to the economic destruction the coronavirus will undoubtedly leave in its wake, the far-right will surely seek to capitalize on thorny issues surrounding EU aid for harder-hit member states.

For Salvini in Italy, this will almost certainly focus on the initial lack of aid from his country’s European neighbors and the dearth of European solidarity. And in Germany and other Northern European countries, responses could mirror the same dynamics seen in the eurozone crisis: Dissatisfaction with the idea that wealthier EU countries should financially support their neighbors in Southern Europe. Indeed, that sentiment was what led to the creation of the AfD in 2013 as an anti-euro movement; the party has already begun voicing strong opposition to proposed “coronabonds” for hard-hit EU member states.

“Right now [the AfD] don’t really have a part to play, but in a couple of months they will,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy. “Germany is going to help other countries, as it should. And when that does happen, they will be there—and they will exploit it.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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