BERLIN—Angela Merkel will likely remain chancellor after the German elections on Sunday, but the voting will shake up German federal politics in another way. Polls predict that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will get close to 10% of the vote, winning seats in the federal legislature, the Bundestag, for the first time.
AfD is fiercely opposed to immigration and wants Germany to leave the Euro, and its focus is likely to remain on those signature issues. But the party’s unusual mix of science policies could also affect German debates on energy, genetic technology, and education. AfD sounds a lot like Donald Trump when it talks about climate change, but its position on transgenic crops aligns more with Greenpeace.
AfD has no chance of entering a coalition government, because all the mainstream parties have said they refuse to cooperate with it, so it will have little direct influence on policymaking. But it could become the third-largest bloc in the new parliament, giving it a powerful platform for speechmaking, increased media attention, and new federal funding for staff and campaigning.
In a country where polls say that more than 80% of people are convinced that human activity is changing the climate—and more than 70% say climate change is one of their biggest worries—the AfD platform stands out. It claims that the United Nations Climate Panel’s reports are “not scientifically solid” and are “based only on mathematical models that do not correctly describe either past or current climate.” Renewable energy, especially from wind, is a waste of money and harms the environment, the party says on its website.
In a recent interview, party co-chairperson Alice Weidel—a management consultant who is a lesbian and lives part-time in Switzerland with her Sri Lankan-Swiss partner and two kids—told the Schwäbische Zeitung newspaper that the scientific consensus is wrong: “There have always been periods of warming and cooling throughout the planet’s history. You can’t prove that humans have triggered the present fluctuations.” The fact that an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human-generated carbon dioxide is warming the planet doesn’t bother her, she said: It was also only a small minority of economists who foresaw the dangers of the Euro.
On nuclear energy, too, the party diverges from the majority opinion in Germany. In 2011, after a tsunami seriously damaged the Fukushima reactor in Japan, Merkel announced that the country would phase out nuclear power by 2022. In doing so, she claimed an issue that had long motivated the country’s left, most prominently the Green party. (Recent polls say that 85% of Germans support a phase-out by 2022 at the latest; 50% would prefer an earlier deadline.) AfD, in contrast, says the country’s nuclear plants should be used for their full designed lifetime. The party also calls for Germany to collaborate on international nuclear research, so that the country maintains its technical expertise in the field.
On genetically modified (GM) crops, however, the AfD agrees with the Greens—and about half of Germans, according to polls. “AfD advocates for GM-free food from German agriculture,” the platform says. It doesn’t elaborate, but says that “the strictly controlled use of genetic engineering in research and science should remain permissible.”
AfD’s dislike of the European Union shows in its position that Germany should abandon the recently adopted bachelor's and master's degree programs—which are a result of the Bologna process, an international effort to harmonize European higher education systems—and return to its traditional university degree system, which awarded Diplom or Magister degrees and had no bachelor equivalent. It also says that German “must be preserved” as the main language for teaching and research, and proposes to end all funding for gender research, which it calls a “waste of tax money” and “not serious science.”
AfD’s appeal doesn’t come from its science and higher education policies but from its nationalist rhetoric, and that’s where future Bundestag members will likely focus their energies, says Timo Lochocki, a political scientist at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. The party is likely to have some influence on the positions of other parties—especially Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union—but mainly on issues “relevant to reclaiming conservative voters” back from AfD, he says. But parliamentary speeches against renewable energy and carbon emission reduction measures are likely to increase.
AfD is already represented in 13 of 16 state-level legislatures. There, its influence on policy has been limited, Lochocki says. “They are not interested in proposing something that is intended to be implemented, but they want to influence the debate.” Their aim, he says, is to convince voters that the established parties have sold them out—and they should vote for AfD next time.