In the week that marked the 80th anniversary of the destruction of Guernica, it was easy to be despondent about the rise of the far right in Europe. France’s Marine Le Pen is set to win maybe 40% of the vote for president, more than double what her father achieved 15 years ago. Autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán continue unchecked their war against liberal democracy. And leaders of the left, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, seem indifferent to the danger and mired in their sectarian concerns.

So it might just have seemed like more bad news to hear that the German far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), had rejected a proposed move towards the centre and elected a new hard-line leadership at its party congress last weekend. In fact, however, the AfD story is a bit more complicated than that.

AfD was founded in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party; it was always critical of immigration, but that was not its primary focus. It was much more concerned about the problems of the eurozone following the global financial crisis, and on the back of that it won 4.7% in its first federal election, narrowly falling short of the threshold for representation. (Germany’s party system has been very stable for a long time, so for a new party to do so well was a major achievement.)

Then came the wave of refugees from the middle east, and in 2015 AfD changed tack. Its founding leader, Bernd Lucke, was ousted by the more hard-line Frauke Petry, and the party made its running on demonisation of immigrants and Muslims. (As is the way of these things today, it also became more pro-Russian.) The new circumstances led to a run of successes in state elections, and national polls showed its support reaching close to 15%.

But its extremism also made it a pariah as far as other parties were concerned. It did not succeed in getting into government in any state, and no party considered it a potential coalition partner in advance of this year’s federal election – especially since its popular support fell back below 10%, helped perhaps by the fear of right-wing populism engendered by Donald Trump’s victory.

It was with that background that Petry last week proposed “to move the party more into the mainstream, and open up to the possibility of forming coalitions with other parties,” and to insert a provision in the AfD charter that “would declare that there is ‘no place’ in the AfD for racist, anti-Semitic, or nationalistic ideologies.” The congress refused to discuss either move, and after Petry declined to lead the party into September’s election it chose populists Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel to replace her. (The Economist has a great analysis of the party’s different factions.)

Not that one should shed a tear for Petry. She is no committed anti-fascist; her model is Marine Le Pen (her partner sits with Le Pen’s group in the European parliament), and her objective was evidently to carry out the same “modernisation” that Le Pen had achieved with the National Front, to give it a veneer of respectability and a more pragmatic orientation. And it may well be that if Le Pen had been obliged to submit to democratic control in her own party, she would have met a similar fate.

The likely effect of Petry’s defeat will be to put AfD further beyond the pale in the German political system. It will probably still win some seats in September, but it will not be the major player that many had predicted. As France has demonstrated, the extremists who put on a moderate façade can be for that reason the most dangerous.

And while Germany, for obvious historical reasons, has among the strongest cultural defences against the far right, its situation is not untypical. Neo-fascist or right-wing populist parties in many countries are falling short of expectations. Municipal elections in Finland earlier this month, for example, saw the Finns Party – which became a partner in government after 2015 elections – drop to just 8.8% of the vote and lose more than a third of its seats.

When given a clear choice, when faced with the examples of Russia, Turkey, Hungary and the rest, most European voters seem pretty clear about not wanting to go in that direction. The danger is more that the established parties will forget the lesson, will repay voters’ allegiance poorly by continuing to chip away at the institutions of democracy, and that when the next crisis comes around – and there’s bound to be one sooner or later – the extremists will be better placed for a successful assault.

In a dangerous world, a lot is riding on the good sense of Europe’s leaders. Let’s hope Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are up to the task.

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