AMY VERDUN. What to Make of the Win of the AfD in Germany? (Australian Outlook 13-9-19

On 1 September 2019, the German far right-wing political party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) had a historical win in state elections. It won 28 percent of the votes in Saxony and 24 percent of the votes in Brandenburg — the state that surrounds Berlin — gaining respectively 18 and 12 percentage points compared to the last elections that took place in 2014.

Both these states are located in what was until 1990, the German Democratic Republic, which unified with “West Germany” or the Federal Republic of Germany. Many of those living in the “East” still feel that they have been treated as second-class citizens. Furthermore, in 2015 when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously welcomed over one million migrants, with several hundred thousands of further migrants entering Germany each year thereafter, many of those who felt, “left behind” and not noticed by the establishment turned to the AfD. How can we understand this rise of the AfD? Are we to expect that it will change German and even European politics?

The Eurosceptic right-wing liberal AfD was founded in 2013 in opposition to the way the German government was dealing with the euro crisis. Born from a right-flank of the ruling Christian democratic party (CDU), the new AfD just missed achieving the five percent voter threshold, and thus did not right away obtain a seat in the German Bundestag. They did however manage to collect votes in the European Parliament elections, both the seven percent in 2014 and 11 percent in 2019. In the 2017 federal elections they secured as many as 12.6 percent of the votes, becoming the third largest party and serving as the largest opposition party against the CDU-SPD coalition. Furthermore, by 2018 the AfD had seats in every single one of the sixteen Bundesländer or states in Germany.

In the run-up to these recent state elections various polls suggested possibly an even greater win for the AfD, so to some extent there was a sigh of relief among the establishment that the AfD did not win even more. In fact, the establishment benefitted considerably from tactical voting in favour of the respective ruling parties CDU, in Saxony and SPD, in Brandenburg by voters opposed to the AfD.

The AfD has been the opposition voice for a number of years now and seems to be capitalising from voters who are dissatisfied with the political establishment and those who feel that the economy and politics have passed them by. There are some objective evidence indicating that services, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita have lagged in Eastern Germany. Knowing that the AfD’s stance on politics is on the far right of the political spectrum, they typically are heavily criticised by the establishment and mainstream media. Their base has gradually become more disgruntled with established institutions and is increasingly turning to  social media for news and reinforcement of their views. The AfD also uses social media, in particular Facebook, more intensely and much more successfully than other established political parties in getting their perspective across.

The AfD has run on an anti-immigrant platform — although it is remarkable that in the two states it has recently won in, less than five percent of the population have an immigrant background. The typical AfD voter includes not only those who are losers of globalisation — 25 percent of their voters are unemployed — but also a good segment of manufacturing and middle-class voters. There are more men than women vote who for the AfD and are predominantly white, with the largest support from voters in the 35-59-year age-range. Compared to the other parties it draws more voters from former East-Germany, although the party membership is predominantly located in Western Germany (in particular North-Rhine Westphalia, the state with the largest population).

The rise of the AfD in Germany has many worried. Until now political parties have introduced a “cordon santaire” – indicating that they would not be willing to consider governing together with the AfD or forming a minority government at their mercy – as they find its basic premises unacceptable. Nevertheless, the current CDU-SPD ruling coalition at federal level is being put under pressure by the opposition provided by AfD. In particular the social-democratic party (SPD), has experienced the largest loss in votes in recent elections and a leadership race is pending. Despite these losses by the SPD, the voters that have turned to the AfD are more often than not those who would have either previously not voted or traditionally voters for the CDU. The strong rise of the AfD over the past six years has changed the atmosphere in politics with many concerned that recent losses and low rankings in opinion polls will impact the coalition. The challenge is that by ignoring or marginalising the rise of the AfD and labelling them as unfit to govern, this party can keep arguing that the establishment is fighting unfairly. They are forced only into an opposition role, from which they can express their views about the government without having to have serious and consistent plans of their own. Yet the governing elite is unwilling to consider forming coalitions with the AfD as they are increasingly more radical and extremist on matters such as human rights, values, and xenophobia and racism. The challenge is for the existing institutions to connect to better disgruntled voters. Existing parties need to find ways to deal more effectively with their issues. Without this connection these voters are attracted to the populist message of the AfD that claims to offer simple answers to complicated problems.

These challenges in Germany have a way of entering European politics as well. As the EU will shortly have new politicians in the European Commission — with CDU politician Ursula von der Leyen as its president-elect — a new European Parliament, and shortly also a new president of the European Central Bank, there is a real opportunity to deal with the unfinished architecture of economic, monetary and financial governance structure of the Euro area. During 2010-2015 ad hoc arrangements, often outside the legal framework of the EU Treaties, were put in place to deal with the euro crisis, and as such still need finalisation. There are ongoing discussions about whether the euro area needs to complete its Banking Union, a budget for the euro area, a Euro Area Ministry of Finance and more political union. With the German domestic political elites being seriously challenged by the AfD, they may be reluctant or even unable to embark on more fundamental EU Treaty changes, which many deem to be necessary to complete the EU-edifice. The window of opportunity that is opening up with the new EU politicians in key positions may face a German leadership unwilling to take too many leaps of face out of fear of losing terrain to eurosceptic voices domestically. Germany has traditionally been one of the strongest voices in EU decision-making. Furthermore, from July-December 2020 it will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU – a role that typically enables that member state a bit more agenda-setting power. If domestically blocked, Germany may not be as effective as it otherwise might be to lead, or at a minimum not to oppose. Finally the Brexit process offers another tremendous challenge for the EU – one that requires that all EU members stay united. So far it seems that such unity has been provided and that it would not be challenged by German domestic electoral changes. All in all, the autumn in Europe promises to be heated and fascinating to watch up close.

Professor Amy Verdun teaches European politics and political economy at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University and is on leave from the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada. 


Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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2 Responses to AMY VERDUN. What to Make of the Win of the AfD in Germany? (Australian Outlook 13-9-19

  1. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Géraldine Schwarz, whose German grandfather joined the Nazi Party and bought a Jewish business on the cheap, wrote a book called, Les Amnésiques (The Amnesics) in which she says that one of modern Germany’s great achievements has been “transforming the mindset of an entire population whose moral standing had been reversed by Nazism in ways that made crime appear not only legal but heroic.” Her grandfather never recognized his responsibilities as a “Mitläufer”, the millions of ordinary people who supported Hitler. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of post war West Germany, rejected any suggestion that the German people collaborated with the Nazis, but the next generation faced the truth. Schwarz’s father, like so many of his contemporaries growing up in the sixties, confronted his parents about their collaboration with Hitler. While accepting that their parents were between a rock and a hard place, this younger German generation interiorised a sense of national shared responsibility to make sure that it never happened again.
    I saw this change of attitude first hand with the 150 German law students who worked at my office from 1980 to 2000. It was not a question of their accepting personal blame for what their parents did, but of recognizing that a civilization to which they belonged, and which had produced Bach, Beethoven and Goethe, was capable of such appalling things. It was not surprising that one of their generation, Angela Merkel, accepted millions of Syrian refugees.
    In a recent article in El País, The Spanish historian, José Alvarez Junco agrees with Schwarz that no other country in Europe has transformed itself so successfully as Germany. There were many people in France, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Poland and many others who had the same attitudes towards the Jews and collaborated with their being rounded up. After the war, the rulers of those countries downplayed their peoples’ collaboration and painted a narrative that they were all just victims of the Nazis. It is not surprising that the rise of the Far Right, the growing intolerance of difference and attraction for populist demagogues has been strongest where the amnesia is more widespread. The biggest group of supporters of the Alternative for Germany are the former East Germans whose leaders glorified the “communist heroes” opposed to Nazism and failed to recognise that there were plenty of the proletariat who supported Hitler. Australia has its own amnesia about the Frontier Wars with the Aboriginal people, and perhaps explains not only their mistreatment, but a cruel side of Australian culture that has come to the fore in the treatment of boat people.

  2. (Dr) John CARMODY says:

    ANY support for AfD is disturbing. Furthermore, it is ironic that it has polled so well in the former communist-controlled area of Germany, for all that it also draws support from Social Democrat voters in the western part of the country. Those people from the Communist east had never really experienced democracy (util the Wall came down in 1989). Their country was, then heavily polluted with an infrastructure that dated from the 1930s. A great deal has been spent there since then — but the “prosperity deficit” was enormous and (especially for people who saw [or thought that they saw] much of their social welfare stripped away) will take a long time to close.

    As with the “Brexit” vote in Britain in 2016, a substantial proportion of this support for AfD is probably a probable a protest against Merkel government, in its dying.
    Nevertheless, as Professor Verdun makes clear, those electoral developments in Germany remain an enormous challenge for the two major parties — on the right the CDU/CSU amalgam and on the “left” the SPD (just as the DLP was for the ALP, here, in the 1950s and 1960s and as “One Nation” has been for the conservative parties for the past 20 years). it is especially acute especially because their separate identities have been seriously blurred through governing in coalition: they face an existential challenge which they show little sign of solving.

    However, the wider European problems which Dr Verdun refers to might be solved more readily once the British commit their own political and economic suicide and leave Europe. British resistance has been the principal brake, I believe, on the implementation of those various financial reforms which she (rightly) refers to as “unfinished”. Further economic union surely needs to follow the currency union of the “Euro system” (which the British always resisted). and perhaps further political union as well, notwithstanding the challenges of languages and traditions.

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