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German Elections: Right-wing Populist AfD Confirms Strength in the East

By Sabine Volk

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While AfD made slight losses compared to the 2017 federal elections, it was able to strengthen its position as the “voice” of the east, confirming the right-wing populist zeitgeist in post-communist Germany, argues FATIGUE’s Sabine Volk.

On 26 September 2021, Germans voted for a new Bundestag, the country’s federal parliament, and for the first time since 2005, it was clear the new chancellor would not be Angela Merkel. While the rise of right-wing populism did not dominate this year’s electoral race, the renewed entry into parliament of Germany’s major right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is due to further complicate coalition building options. AfD had campaigned with provocative positions such as the slogan of “Germany, but normal”, while also claiming to be the key political force that sought to safeguard civil rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Losses and Gains

Overall, AfD lost support compared to the last Bundestag elections. This year,AfD received 10.3% of the total vote, that is 2.3% less than 2017. The party will send 83 deputes to Berlin, that is 11 fewer than before – even though the parliament will be larger from now on. AfD support was thus far below that which other right-wing populist parties are able to mobilize across Europe. Moreover, as no other party in parliament wants to cooperate with AfD, it has no chance to participate in government, either this term or, in all likelihood, in upcoming terms.

Nevertheless, AfD is hardly losing its appeal among German voters. Not only was AfD able to renew a stable two-digit share of the total vote, refuting observers’ predictions that AfD would be a mere protest phenomenon set to decline after one electoral term. Also, AfD has become the strongest force in certain regions, namely in parts of post-communist eastern Germany. AfD won relative majorities in nearly all electoral districts of Saxony and half of Thuringia. It gained as much as 32.5% of the vote in Germany’s easternmost electoral district, the city of Görlitz on the border with Zgorzelec in Poland. On the level of the municipalities that form part of larger districts, AfD even managed to win 47.9% of the cast vote (in Dorfchemnitz).

No less striking is AfD’s success in winning so-called first votes for “direct candidates” who enter parliament no matter their parties’ overall score. The 299 direct mandates are a tool which is supposed to strengthen the link between voters and parliamentarians. They are typically won by the two large parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), and AfD won only 3 in 2017. This year, 16 AfD candidates enter the Bundestag via direct mandates, all of them from the eastern German regions of Saxony and Thuringia. In fact, AfD won in 10 out of the 16 electoral districts in Saxony, previously dominated by CDU. AfD candidates even triumphed over exposed CDU politicians such as Marco Wanderwitz, the previous federal government’s Commissioner for the New Federal States, that is eastern Germany.

Right-Wing Populist Zeitgeist in Eastern Germany?

The results confirm AfD’s increasing strength in eastern Germany over the past couple of years, previously indicated by the rising voter support in regional and the 2019 European elections. The rise of AfD in the east has been coupled with its programmatic shift towards right-wing populism: soon after its emergence as a mostly western German party of economic liberalism in 2013, AfD has been dominated by cultural issues, namely the alleged cultural decline of Germany due to supposedly too liberal immigration and integration policies. The right-wing turn was crucially pushed by eastern German factions and individual politicians such as Björn Höcke from Thuringia.

Hence, AfD’s overall vote share and the high number of direct candidates leave no doubt that the party was able to build local strongholds and stable networks in eastern Germany. In fact, AfD is by now perceived as the “voice” of the east, representing regional interests and identities. As such, it replaces the Left party (Die Linke): after several decades of electoral success in the eastern German regions, the successor of the East German communist party nearly failed to enter the Bundestag this year. AfD’s transformation into a so-called “Lega East” took place in the context of burgeoning anti-immigration street mobilization, associated with local far-right protest groups such as the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA) in Dresden, which eastern AfD politicians proclaimed as the party’s counterpart on the streets.

Increasing Internal Divisions

The results are likely to increase internal divisions within the party. AfD politics has always been characterized by a high degree of infighting, including repeated attempts to exclude individual members and deputes due to their far-right rhetoric or previous involvement in right-wing extremist organizations. These ideological divisions also have an east-west dimension, as the radical camp continues to be be stronger in the east, while western party elites try to conserve the image of an economically liberal, democratic party.

AfD’s internal divisions were also palpable in the immediate reactions to the election results, showcased among others in the federal press conference held half a day after the official result had been proclaimed. Reactions reflected the views of two camps: the radicals that celebrated the results in eastern Germany as a victory for AfD over the “old parties” (Altparteien) and specifically chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, on the one hand, and the more liberal wing concerned over the losses in the west, on the other.

The broader eastern German far right interpreted the result mostly positively. In Dresden, the capital of AfD’s stronghold of Saxony, several hundred people celebrated in the evening after the elections: far-right PEGIDA, which has already been mobilizing in Dresden for seven years, including during the pandemic, called the results a success due to “joint, solidary efforts” between party politics and “civil movements” in Saxony and Thuringia. In eastern Germany, it seems to be AfD’s profile as a “movement party” forming the parliamentary arm of a larger far-right network of local initiatives, “alternative” media and intellectual circles which guarantees its success.