Why you should care
Because she’s trying to be the voice of many vastly different German perspectives.
She seems no-nonsense. Fit and trim, she has pixie-cut brown hair and a simple fashion sense — pantsuits, solid-colored blouses — that labels her “no fuss!” She approaches interviews and speeches with a near-permanent smile and appears to be a cheerful, go-getting mother of four. But this 41-year-old chemist turned politician is inspiring plenty of heated discussions around German dinner tables.
Just as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders front far-right politics in France and the Netherlands, Dresden native Frauke Petry is offering a youthful zeal and smile to anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic rhetoric in Germany. While some are intrigued by her provocations and calls for saving German culture from an influx of 1 million-plus refugees, others repel at the Third Reich-style tone her party has been known to inspire. In the wake of Brexit, many fear that populist parties like Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) will enjoy a boost.
It seems there are people within the party leadership that are even more radical than she is.
Peter Matuschek of polling firm Forsa
The AfD chair ousted party founder Bernd Lucke last July, rising to the top on her strength as a compromise candidate, says Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science at the University of Mainz. “Internally, it’s a pretty diverse party,” he says, referring to a few market liberal holdouts from Lucke’s time, as well as super nationalists. “She became Lucke’s successor because she was acceptable to both wings in the party.” Her job as chair means she’s responsible for steering and unifying the AfD’s national campaign while boosting supporter numbers and coffers.
But Petry now faces the challenge of uniting a bevy of right-wing malcontents. “She has become rather isolated within the party leadership,” says Arzheimer. Extremists have lambasted her for being too soft: They didn’t take kindly to the party axing its proposed ban on circumcision, for example, which had been widely labeled as Islamophobic and anti-Semitic. Moderates, meanwhile, were alarmed earlier this year by Petry’s mention of shooting refugees at the border “as a last resort.” When she replaced Lucke, she was considered a radical, but now, says Peter Matuschek, head of political and social research at German opinion-polling firm Forsa, “it seems there are people within the party leadership that are even more radical than she is.”
Petry, who holds degrees from English and German universities, speaks perfect English and has been a successful entrepreneur. She claims the press often maligns her — though she ignored requests for comments to this article — and appears hell-bent on being the voice that prevails. Which is a daring strategy given that her predecessor, Lucke, had a reputation for being overly authoritative. Now Petry must figure out how to define her party without stepping on too many toes. The question at hand: The AfD doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a conservative party, a right-wing populist party or an ultra-nationalist organization. Also up in the air is whether it should align with Pegida, the radically anti-Islamization group known for protests, or with other far-right groups throughout Europe. “They have to send a clear message,” says Arzheimer, especially ahead of the September 2017 national parliamentary elections; to do otherwise would be “political suicide,” he says. The AfD is polling at around 10 percent these days, according to Forsa, and Arzheimer believes the party will surpass the 5 percent barrier for entering national parliament for the first time next year, perhaps netting between 8 percent and 12 percent of the vote. (Right now, there’s no way to know how many seats that could translate to.)
Two years ago, when the AfD was new, its anti-European Union stance meant it was “basically campaigning on the wrong issue,” says Arzheimer. But the refugee crisis has since created a “perfect storm” — flipping political discussion away from 2013’s core issue, unemployment, to immigration. The party has now published its first-ever national manifesto, the main focus of which was Muslims, whom “they portray as a danger,” says Arzheimer. As for the EU, the AfD doesn’t want out so much as to remodel the union into a free trading area. Domestically, it espouses morally conservative values. It prefers Germany’s former three-pronged upper-education system to new comprehensive schools, and is opposed to gender and LGBT equality, as well as sex education.
Yet Petry, whose first husband was a Lutheran pastor, recently ran off with fellow politician and married (now divorced) father of four Marcus Pretzell, who didn’t reply to OZY’s requests for comment. But she’s in luck: While there are fundamentalist Christians in her midst, the party is not overly religious. So while some supporters may have a problem with their leader not reflecting conservative ideals, it’s not a problem for the majority.
That said, many believe Petry’s political career — and perhaps even the AfD — has already peaked. While the AfD, which has seats in several state parliaments, is likely to land in the Bundestag next year, for it to truly play at the national table it would need some prospect of becoming a coalition partner in governance. Arzheimer says it’s more likely that center-right parties, liberals and Christian Democrats will ignore the AfD, refusing to grant it more legitimacy. But then again, we now know all too well what can happen when we assume the establishment will override the fringe outsider.