On the Tuesday after all the election madness was over, Jörg Meuthen settled into seat 14A for his flight from Berlin back to Stuttgart.
The joint-leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party looked like he desperately needed to lean back and finally sleep — then the plane sped down the runway for takeoff.
“This is the coolest moment,” Mr. Meuthen exclaimed, as if intoxicated by what he and his party had accomplished. “When the acceleration pushes you back into your seat.”
Indeed, the whole of Germany has been pushed back by the acceleration of political change this month.
A new parliamentary group like that is really a grab-bag. It’ll be my job to control the forces. Jörg Meuthen, leader of Alternative for Germany
A couple of months ago hardly anyone knew Mr. Meuthen, a 55-year-old economics professor from the University of Public Administration in Kehl. Now people come up and talk to him at the airport. They got to know him during the election as one of the AfD's two national spokespeople, the other being second joint-leader, Frauke Petry. As a result of the election, Mr. Meuthen will now also become a parliamentarian in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.
His anti-immigration party garnered 15 percent of the vote there, 12 percent in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate and almost 24 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, in eastern Germany.
“The last couple of days were mind-boggling,” he told a friend by phone just before takeoff. “I’ve just had a damn lot of fun.”
Now Mr. Meuthen is constantly on the go — making public appearances, giving interviews, signing autographs and defending the AfD’s program.
On the Monday night after elections he sat on a panel for the German political talk show, Hard But Fair. He was joined by Peter Altmaier, chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, and Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the center-left Social Democrats, who are the junior coalition partner in the federal coalition.
Mr. Altmaier, a member of Ms. Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats talked and talked, as if words could make the electoral humiliation go away. The CDU had failed to take back two key states, including Baden-Württemberg, a state it had ruled for almost 60 years until losing to the Greens and SPD in 2011.
Mr. Meuthen sat next to him and took child-like delight in all the fuss now being made over him and his party.
Sometimes when he thinks about how quickly things have happened, he seems totally amazed. The main thing he has noticed is almost nothing seems able to harm his AfD.
If he comes off well in a debate, people say, “Well done, underdog.”
When his sparring partners put him in a right-wing corner, he gets letters saying, “Don’t let them run all over you. Now I’m really going to vote for the AfD.”
Even when he doesn't say much, as on the TV show, supporters take to Twitter afterwards. “Great performance by Professor Meuthen,” said one tweet. “The man has answers.”
When the media report on the radical-right party officials, AfD supporters scream “lying press!”
This election cycle has shown that populists cannot be exposed for what they are by conventional means.
“The greatest danger to the Alternative for Germany comes more from inside,” Mr. Meuthen explained on his flight to Stuttgart. “We are the only ones who can break us up. Nobody can do that from the outside.”
He is referring to the tensions between the AfD’s conservative patriotic wing and its far-right faction. It is a battle between East and West, between the moderates and the radicals.
After the AfD’s election success, that internal fight might come more into the open — and could decide how successful the party will be in 2017 federal elections.
In Baden-Württemberg, 23 AfD representatives will now enter the state parliament in Stuttgart. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the party will get 14 seats in the capital Mainz.
The largest group — 24 representatives — will enter Saxony-Anhalt’s parliament in Magdeburg. With just over 300 party members in the entire state, even Mr. Meuthen isn’t sure there are enough qualified people.
But there’s no turning back now. With success comes responsibility.
For instance, if the Green Party and CDU form a coalition in Baden-Württemberg, Mr. Meuthen would lead the opposition. In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD will already lead the opposition, no matter who forms the government. In Rhineland-Palatinate the party is also the third-strongest power in parliament.
Mr. Meuthen promises meticulous work.
“We will be particularly vigilant,” he said. “The governments will now be responsible for every cent that they put into such things as prestige projects instead of police.”
He admitted, though, that the new parliamentary group will be “a grab-bag.” He said his job is “to control the centrifugal forces. I hope I succeed.”
Ahead of the March 13 state elections, the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Studies examined the AfD’s internal schism.
According to the study, the party presents itself in southwestern Germany as decidedly conservative middle-class. In Baden-Württemberg, for example, the party also strives for a moderate image. Almost all of the 14 members of the state executive committee there have college degrees, five have doctorates and two are professors.
Meanwhile, in Rhineland-Palatinate, the tone was “largely calm and objective,” according to the Otto Brenner Foundation. The party's leader in the state, Uwe Junge, is concerned “about respectability and avoids provocative statements.”
This reflects in some ways the party's origins as a euroskeptic party, founded by professor Bernd Lucke in 2013 to oppose the Greek bailouts. Mr. Lucke, however, lost a power struggle with Ms. Petry last year and after being ousted as leader, he left the party.
In the east, the party's new anti-immigrant approach has been one of the sources of its success.
In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, the party has clearly moved to the right. The campaign program there was dominated by “nationalist and right-wing populism,” the study noted.
One example is Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, a spokesman for the “Patriotic Platform,” a group in the party which is seen as radical and fiercely anti-immigrant, even for the AfD.
At a campaign rally last month, Mr. Tillschneider vented anger at Ms. Merkel’s welcoming stance on refugees. “The CDU wants to turn Saxony-Anhalt into a five-star, all-inclusive hotel with unlimited length of stay!” he told the crowd. “All you need to get in is a Syrian passport. We Germans are the workers in this hotel. And if sometimes we don’t abide by the law, we are punished!”
Mr. Tillschneider is a German-Romanian by birth, a scholar of Islam and, following the AfD’s election success in Saxony-Anhalt, a new member of the state parliament in Magdeburg.
Mr. Meuthen prefers not to say much about Mr. Tillschneider. “Naturally, we have members in the party whose positions I don’t share,” he said.
But Mr. Meuthen said he is in complete agreement with joint-party leader Ms. Petry, “We are patriotic, not extreme right-wing. What’s wrong with that?” he asked.
Mr. Meuthen says AfD voters are not just old, angry men or right-wing radicals. Most are workers or unemployed people aged between 18 and 45. He said they are looking for stability and political leaders who will take their concerns seriously, whether about the euro, immigrants or schools.
“We are the new caring party, except we don’t have any Social Democratic approaches to solutions,” he said.
Experts assume, however, that the AfD is facing a period of internal strife. "The internal party conflicts and power struggles will break out again," predicts Kai Arzheimer, politics professor at the University of Mainz.
Ahead of the 2017 federal elections, Mr. Meuthen will need to control those centrifugal forces and decide on a definite party program.
“It’s like with the Greens,” he said. “In the beginning, there was a fight between fundamentalists and realists.”
Party leaders don’t have to throw out everybody who disagrees with them, at least not right away, he said. “You just can’t overplay your hand.”