Germany‘s governing parties have staved off another crisis – for now – with wins in two regional elections in the country’s east, but a far-right opponent that surged to finish a strong second was on Monday savouring the prospect of harrying mainstream rivals in its heartland.
Alternative for Germany, or AfD, proclaimed that it cannot be frozen out of power forever after it nearly tripled its support in Saxony and almost doubled it in neighbouring Brandenburg on Sunday, compared with five years earlier.
The far-right AfD took about a quarter of the vote between the two states, reflecting its establishment as a major political force – particularly in the ex-communist east – after the arrival in 2015 of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany.
But it fell short of beating the traditional parties that have governed those regions since German reunification in 1990, a possibility that seemed likely a few weeks ago and could have further destabilised Chancellor Angela Merkel’s struggling coalition government in Berlin.
It remains uncertain whether her alliance will survive until the next national election, due in 2021. That is likely to become clear only in December when the centre-left Social Democrats – Merkel’s junior partners in Berlin – finish choosing a new leadership from a 17-candidate field and consider the alliance’s future.
The leader of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, renewed her long-standing insistence that her party will not work with AfD. Asked if it can continue freezing out a force that wins a quarter of the vote, she replied: “Yes, we can.” She argued such a stance had attracted voters.
But she acknowledged that the outcome in Saxony, where her party won but now faces the prospect of patching together a three-way alliance with the environmentalist Greens, was a “difficult result”. In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats face a similar task after their outgoing government lost its majority.
AfD has thrived on uncompromising opposition and relishes the prospect of more. “Opposition is not necessary garbage,” coleader Joerg Meuthen said. “We will be a very strong opposition against very fragile governing alliances.”
Meuthen compared AfD with Italy’s League, which was once a regional party in Italy’s north but surged to wider popularity with a strong anti-migrant stance. “We are going in that direction, except that here change is coming not from the north of the country but from the east,” he proclaimed.
Fellow party leader Alexander Gauland said there were majorities on the right in both states that voted on Sunday and he was “very confident” that “not in the short term, but certainly in the medium-term” those could be turned into a government, at least in Saxony. “We have an election result that won’t allow us to be left out in the cold permanently,” he said.
Whether there is any chance of AfD’s eastern strength spreading west is questionable at best. In May, the party won 11 percent of the nationwide vote in the European Parliament election, lower than the proportion it took at the national election in 2017 to enter Germany’s federal parliament.
In recent months, the Greens – who have positioned themselves as more or less the opposite of AfD – have been surging in national polls. Traditionally weak in the east, the party made modest gains on Sunday, with some prospective voters apparently lining up behind Merkel’s CDU in Saxony and the Social Democrats in Brandenburg to prevent AfD winning.
AfD has tapped into disillusionment in the east among people who feel left behind after nearly 30 years of German unity. Promises of equal living standards did not always become reality, salaries in the east still lag behind those in the west and many young people have left to seek opportunities elsewhere.
AfD received its strongest support on Sunday from men in rural areas, with its overall support approximately 10 percentage points higher among men than among women. It has risen as the Left Party, which is partly rooted in East Germany’s communist party, appears to have lost its once-strong appeal to protest voters in the region.
“In the east, it has reached a size that it is laborious to govern around it, and the other parties are still struggling with that,” Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, told Deutschlandfunk radio. But he said it wasn’t realistic to expect other parties to stop freezing it out of government “in the foreseeable future” – for the next two or three parliamentary terms.