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Five things to know about the AfD surge in German regional elections

The AfD is undoubtedly stronger following the Saxony and Brandenburg elections. But it will be shunned by other parties when it comes to forming state governments. What does it all mean?

Five things to know about the AfD surge in German regional elections
A voter at an AfD election rally in Görlitz, Dresden. Photo: DPA

By all accounts, the latest regional elections in Germany were a victory for radical protest party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Yes, they missed out on the top spot – but support surged in Brandenburg and Saxony, propelling the far-right party to become the second strongest in both states.

In Saxony, the AfD almost tripled its result to 27.5 percent – its strongest state result ever. The CDU stayed on top with 32.1 percent – a drop from the last state election in 2014 when it scooped 40 percent.

Meanwhile, in Brandenburg, the AfD received 23.5 percent of the vote. That's just behind the centre-left SPD (Social Democrats) which won 26.2 percent, down from 31.9 percent in the previous election.

The CDU, traditionally weak in Brandenburg, fell to its worst state result with 15.6 percent, and now ranks third behind the AfD.

But even though the AfD won roughly a quarter of the vote in both Brandenburg and Saxony, it won't get a chance to govern. That's because all other parties have ruled out working with the party and are seeking to build coalitions around the AfD. How long can this continue?

READ ALSO: Germany's CDU rules out coalition with the AfD

Should parties take a different approach with the AfD?

Some German politicians are questioning whether taking a hard line against the AfD and its voters is the right way forward.

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), which failed to gain the five percent needed to get into parliament in both elections, said it wasn't a good idea to “only exclude and denounce the AfD”. 

Kubicki told regional newspaper, the Passauer Neue Presse, that shutting the party out did “more harm than good”.

He said: “We must be more open and communicative with the AfD and its voters, and not always automatically brand everything as right-wing extremist.”

He called for more constructive debate, saying voters were concerned about affordable housing, public transport and the future of their region.

Support for the far-left Die Linke party, which has been a stronghold of the eastern German political system, collapsed in both states to about 10 percent, reflecting in part a migration of some voters from the populist left to the far right.

The Left faction leader Sahra Wagenknecht said her party needed to take some responsibility for the upswing of the AfD.

“By alienating ourselves from our former voters, we made it easy for the AfD. In this respect, we are jointly responsible for its success,” Wagenknecht said.

Sahra Wagenknecht, of The Left party. Photo: DPA

Werner Patzelt, Dresden-based political scientist, told The Local that some voters who support the AfD already recognize that no other party will go into a coalition with them – and that's not a bad thing for them.

“Some voters know this and say: ‘Well we’ll just have to wait until our party grows and gets 40 percent or an absolute majority,” he said. “Only then will established parties accept us as legitimate players in this political game.”

However, other AfD voters feel angry about the situation and this possibly fuels more resentment. 

“Others say '‘there is no democracy, all the other parties dislike us, they do not respect us.’ “Those are the two big groups among the AfD voters,” said Patzelt.  

To avoid teaming up with the AfD, in Saxony, the CDU will most likely partner with the SPD and the Greens to form a government. And in Brandenburg, the SPD will likely form a coalition with the Greens and The Left. But discussions for both governments are ongoing.

Will parties ever work with the AfD?

So what happens if the party increases support further? Surely it can’t be shut out forever?

Patzelt said it’s a key time for the AfD which is still deciding if it is a credible political party or one that is intent on working outside of the mainstream system. 

READ ALSO: 'Seniors rescue the established parties': German grey votes fight far-right

“They (the AfD) have to prove they can work according to the rules of the game, and that they can bring in competence and reliability,” said Patzelt.

“The AfD so far has not made a reliable decision about if it wants to be within the framework of the constitutional order or whether it wants to overthrow the constitutional order. Or change it fundamentally.”

Patzelt said parties like the centre-right CDU, which would be ideologically closest to the AfD, could not work with the party as it is right now.

“We don’t know whether it’s a normal political party,” he said. “The AfD has so far managed to overthrow all political leaders who wanted to transform it into a normal political party.”

Right now, the role of parliamentary opposition should not be underestimated.

“This is no inferior role, it’s a very important, distinguished and honourable political role and the AfD has political influence in this role,” said Patzelt.  “Everthing depends on how it makes use of its influence.”

Who are the AfD voters?

Patzelt says there’s a “new generation” of people voting for the AfD – and they’re younger. 

As The Local reported, the outcome of Sunday's regional polls showed that particularly voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s backed them.

Patzelt said young voters are typically either voting for the Greens or the AfD, which shows how the party system is transforming in Germany and people are turning to smaller, less established parties. 

But it’s not that simple. AfD voters come from all parts of society.

READ ALSO: Far-right AfD second strongest force in Brandenburg and Saxony

“Not so much from academic levels, but the voters include well-trained professionals to people who live on social subsidies,” said Patzelt.

The typical narrative so far has been to say that AfD voters come from less well-off areas, but that’s not the full story. 

“The AfD is indeed strong where poorer people live but it is also strong in the wealthier places,” said Patzelt. “So all the simplistic explanations about who votes for the AfD seem to be wrong. The AfD is kind of a new catch all party. 

“Voters are those who seem to think that something is going wrong in policy making in our country.”

What happens now?

The spotlight now turns to the eastern state of Thuringia where elections are held on October 27th. Patzelt said the vote will be “very revealing” because the AfD chairperson in this state is Björn Höcke, part of the extremist wing of the party.

Björn Höcke at a campaign rally in Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

How the AfD does in Thuringia will dictate the direction of the party going forward.

“If Höcke gets a better result than the AfD did in Saxony or Brandenburg, this could lead to inter-party discussions and a strong argument that the AfD could get more right wing radical,” said Patzelt.

Will the coalition topple?

Not a day goes by without a story in the German media examing the future of the coalition made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) and the Social Democrats.

And, of course, these latest elections also shine a light on the dwindling support for the Union and the SPD.

A biopsy over the loss of votes will no doubt be happening. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of the CDU, has already said that the party takes responsibility for the losses in both states. It is partly true that “we – myself included  – have not been as deft as we could have been about overcoming some hurdles.”

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

But as the results weren't as bad as they could be, perhaps the coalition (known as GroKo) is safe – at least for now.

“It wasn't so good but it wasn’t so bad, ” said Patzelt, when asked what he thinks coalition politicians are thinking. “And this prevents them from seeing how serious their situation really is.”

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Germany’s Scholz looks to quell coalition divisions

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will battle on Sunday to put out the fires threatening his government as the three-way coalition meets for crisis talks on a growing series of disputes.

Germany's Scholz looks to quell coalition divisions

A little more than a year after taking office, the relationship between Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and his governing partners, the Greens and the pro-business FDP, looks more strained than ever.

Earlier this week, Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck of the Greens accused his coalition partners of blocking progress, while the FDP’s deputy chief Wolfgang Kubicki compared the Green politician to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kubicki later apologised but the damaging row underlines the state of the three-way coalition — the first in Germany’s post-war history.

The alliance got off to a good start in December 2021 under the motto of their coalition agreement — “Dare for more progress”.

It was put to a tough test when Russia invaded Ukraine just two months on, upending decades of German economic and political certainties.

But tensions have since soared — particularly between the Greens and the FDP.

The two are unnatural bedfellows, with the former set on environmental commitments to phase out nuclear energy and combustion engines, and the latter promoting very different economic policies.

“Everywhere you look in the government there are fires,” German magazine Der Spiegel said, with the partners wrangling over priorities and struggling for compromises.

Boiling over

It could not be “that in a coalition of progress only one coalition partner is responsible for progress and the others for preventing progress”, Habeck said at a Green party event during the week.

Sunday’s talks would be a good opportunity to “overcome blockages” on key issues, Habeck also told broadcaster ARD, blasting the coalition’s record and policy leaks.

At the root of Habeck’s discontent is a controversial project put forward by his ministry to ban the installation of new oil and gas boilers from 2024 — a year earlier than previously planned.

The accelerated move from fossil fuels to greener technologies such as heat pumps would be accompanied by a multi-billion-euro package of financial support for switchers, Habeck has promised.

But the idea has caused ructions within the coalition, with critics underlining the costs involved.

“The plans must go back to the drawing board and be fundamentally revised,” Finance Minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner said after a policy draft was leaked to German daily Bild.

Habeck’s determination had something in common with Putin, Kubicki said. Both, he declared, had “a similar belief that the state, the leader, the chosen one, knows better than the people what is good for them”.

As tempers frayed, SPD general secretary said the partners needed to “find a new way of working”.

“This is an appeal to all three parties in government — these public arguments must stop now,” he said.

‘Explosive material’

The boiler bust-up is only one item on a growing list of disagreements, including pension reform, child benefits and cuts to red tape.

The parties agreed in their coalition agreement to speed up the approval process for key projects to revitalise Germany’s creaking infrastructure.

But while the FDP would like to see support for more new motorways, the Greens want to privilege more climate-friendly projects.

The FDP have also rallied opposition against European Union plans to ban cars with internal combustion engines from 2035, finally wringing a compromise solution out of Brussels on Saturday despite Green scepticism.

Spending demands from across government — including more money for Germany’s sclerotic armed forces — have made the maths harder for the finance minister.

Lindner, who has insisted on a return to Germany’s strict constitutional spending limits, was forced earlier in March to push back the publication of spending plans for 2024 due to a lack of agreement.

Divisions over the budget threaten to bring an end to the coalition, if Scholz fails to back his finance minister, political scientist Juergen Falter told Bild.

Much of the coalition’s discord could be traced back to the fact that “the ideas of the Greens and the FDP simply do not fit together”, he said.

Bringing their opposing views together was always going to be difficult, according to Falter.

“Three-way alliances automatically have more explosive material,” he said.