Far-right AfD second strongest force in Brandenburg and Saxony

Germany's far-right AfD party surged to new strengths in elections for two eastern states on Sunday, exit polls said, reflecting anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel's migrant policy and a wealth gap 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell.

Far-right AfD second strongest force in Brandenburg and Saxony
Björn Höcke, chairman of the AfD in Thuringia, celebrating the result in Werder, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

The Alternative for Germany became the second-strongest party in regional parliaments in both Saxony and Brandenburg, the state which surrounds the capital Berlin, according to final results..

In Saxony, where the radical anti-Islam Pegida street movement was born, the AfD scored 27.5 percent, up sharply from 9.7 percent five years ago, broadcasters ARD and ZDF forecast.

And it won between 23.5 percent in Brandenburg state, compared to 12.2 percent in 2014, said the initial projections.

The outright winners in Saxony were Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who scored 32 to 33 percent. In 2014 the party won about 40 percent of the vote.

READ ALSO: Far-right AfD surge expected in east Germany state elections

Michael Kretschmer, state premier of Saxony, and his partner Annett Hofmann at the CDU election party in Dresden. Photo: DPA

18-Uhr-Prognose zur #Sachsenwahl und #Brandenburgwahl

Brandenburg was held by the Social Democrats (SPD), who came first with just over 27 percent, down from 31.9 percent in the previous election in 2014.

AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland said “we are satisfied in Brandenburg as well as in Saxony” where his party had “punished” Merkel's conservatives.

He conceded that “yes, we are not yet the strongest force… We are working on it.”

Though broadly anticipated in pre-election surveys, the outcome delivered another slap to the fragile coalition government of Merkel's CDU and their junior partners the SPD.

READ ALSO: 'We are heading up': Why the Green party is gaining support in eastern Germany

'We are the people'

Aside from railing against asylum-seekers and Islam, the AfD has protested against plans to shutter coal mines to protect the climate and capitalized on resentment about perceived injustices since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Let's complete the change”, it had vowed in the campaign, referring to the peaceful revolution that ended the one-party state and in 1990 brought national reunification.

Voter turnout was high as the tense political atmosphere mobilised both AfD supporters and their opponents.

All other parties had declared before the vote that they would not cooperate with the AfD, forcing the mainstream groups into new coalitions to achieve governing majorities.

The SPD celebrates in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

The AfD has long co-opted the former pro-democracy chant “We are the people” and turned it against what it labels the “Merkel regime”.

Eastern Germany is home to several of the AfD's most extremist leaders, among them Björn Höcke, who has labelled Berlin's Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame”.

His close ally, former paratrooper Andreas Kalbitz, 46, who has had deep ties to right-wing extremist groups, was the top candidate in Brandenburg.

Der Spiegel weekly has reported that in 2007 Kalbitz joined known German neo-Nazis on a visit to Athens that came to police attention when a swastika flag was flown from a hotel balcony.

Kalbitz confirmed to the magazine that he joined the trip but insisted that the event “was not conducive to arousing my further interest or approval”.

Fragile coalition

The AfD, formed initially as a eurosceptic group, now focuses mainly on fear and anger over Germany's mass migrant influx since 2015.

READ ALSO: Could the far-right AfD really win in upcoming German state elections?

Merkel, who also grew up in the east, had avoided campaigning on the ground ahead of Sunday's polls in the region, where she has in the past faced harsh abuse.

The veteran leader has already pledged to step down when her current term ends in 2021, but regional election upsets could speed up her government's demise.

A third election will be held on October 27 in the eastern state of Thuringia.

Poor results for the SPD, already demoralized by a string of election defeats, were expected to again boost internal critics who want the party to leave Merkel's government quickly.

Meanwhile, the Green party, which has never been strong in the east of Germany, made gains, reaching about 9 percent in Saxony – plus 3.3 points – and  around 10 percent in Brandenburg (a gain of 3.8 points).

All parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Why are some Germans turning towards the far-right?

With the AfD taking second place in several polls, Lecturer in German Studies Alexander Clarkson told The Local why the pandemic and a feeling of constant crisis has normalised the far-right in Germany.

Why are some Germans turning towards the far-right?

The farright Alternative for Germany (AfD) have established themselves as second place in the national polls, with significant polling leads across most of east Germany and a number of victories in mayoral and district council races that have shocked many in mainstream German society.

Last week a study, called the FES Mitte, showed that the number of right-wing extremists in Germany had practically tripled in a few years, while also showing rises in homophobia, xenophobia and belief in conspiracy theories.

READ ALSO: Number of right-wing extremists in Germany ‘triples’

But what’s behind this?

The study’s co-author Beate Küpper blamed the rise in these attitudes on the rise of an increasingly confident and aggressive populism, which blames “the system” and “migration” for society’s problems, as well as the “multiple crises” that Germany has experienced in recent years, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the energy crisis caused by the country’s reliance on Russian gas, imports of which were stopped after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German studies at King’s College London and a specialist in migration, thinks that the pandemic could have been more influential than people realise in the AfD’s radicalisation, while warning that there might never be a “return to normal” on some of the issues that motivate AfD voters.

An AfD supporter holds a "campaign finale" leaflet that shows the portraits of the top Hessian AfD candidates for the state election.

An AfD supporter holds a “campaign finale” leaflet that shows the portraits of the top Hessian AfD candidates for the state election. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

Due to the shared centre ground between most parties on issues such as climate change or supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, the AfD can portray themselves as the only actual alternative for Germany on a whole range of issues, such as protesting the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, migration or climate-friendly measures that might be costly for citizens in the short term.

“With regard to migration, the AfD can say ‘we’re the only representative of this voice’ as there are political dynamics where governments talk tough on migration but need to take them in for economic reasons,” said Clarkson.

“We need to look at specifics of the last few years – the pandemic, the war and the sudden surge in climate protection legislation like the Heizungsgesetzt,” Clarkson continued, talking of the controversial heating law that saw raucous protests in Bavaria would have started to phase out gas and oil boilers by next year but was watered down.

But the academic thinks that the pandemic played a large and so-far understudied role in how farright ideas have spread across Germany.

“The Covid pandemic plays a central role,” he said. “Life was really bizarre and screwed up. You have farright movements telling you that this democratic state is just a facade … and then the government tells people to stay in the homes, you have a [largely justified] highly coercive policy by a democratic state. But then the far around can turn around and say ‘I told you so – they did lock you in your homes.’

“People underestimated how much distrust of the state flowed out of the pandemic. Then the AfD can work with that when huge changes [like large-scale migration and climate protection legislation] are demanded quickly. The pandemic allowed the AfD to survive the 2021 election, but it radicalised the AfD’s base, so as additional crises come in, it opens up a much wider range of the electorate to these ideas.”

READ ALSO: Why are the far-right AfD doing so well in German polls?

And then instead of returning to normal, straight after the pandemic Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine became the next crisis, which is stressful for citizens. “We didn’t return to normality, we returned to crisis. Normal keeps not happening,” said Clarkson, warning that we may have to get used to living in multiple crises.

Amid a controversial cover of the news magazine Der Spiegel, which has been compared to both a 1920s antisemitic advert and a poster by Nigel Farage during the Brexit campaign, the topic of migration is once again causing huge political debate in Germany, as rising numbers of migrants and asylum seekers come to the country, alongside over a million Ukrainian refugees who will stay in Germany, particularly in places where there has been very little diversity previously.

But despite fluctuations in polls, Clarkson warns that we shouldn’t take the idea Germany is getting significantly more right wing at face value.

“The [conservative Christian Democrats] CDU going to the centre and abandoning claims to pre-1937 beyond the Oder-Niesse line, or say LGBT rights or shifts on issues of migration, all of this stuff is transforming what it means to be centre-right,” he said. 

Clarkson said one problem centres on what is viewed as far-right in Germany and that this can change. 

“Racist views that are now rightly classified as farright were pretty normal in the 1980s in the CDU, and even the [social democratic] SPD,” he said.