Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière, of the Christian Democrats (CDU), had a hard time defending his seat in Sunday’s general election in Germany. This is rather surprising given that his riding in Saxony, close to Dresden, in the far east of Germany has usually produced safe seats for the CDU.
But nothing is normal in the German political landscape after Sunday. Indeed, Berlin is shocked and panicky about this throwback in German history. For the first time since 1949, an ultra-right wing nationalist party — Alternative für Deutschland (or AfD; Alternative for Germany) — has been elected into the Bundestag. The AfD is the second strongest party in the former East and the third strongest caucus in the new Bundestag, forcing the Social Democrats to become the official opposition. Such a result requires analysis.
First, the current grand coalition between the conservative CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) lost 12.5% of the popular vote, translating into 95 seats in the house. It has therefore been clearly rejected by the electorate. Thus it is not surprising that Angela Merkel (CDU) will try to form a coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens. Moreover, the AfD received 12.6% of the vote and will take 91 seats in the new Bundestag. Back in 2013, it failed to take any seats at all, having won only 4.7% of the vote — 0.3% short of the minimum 5% hurdle. Their success in Sunday’s election puts them clearly ahead of the Free Democrats (FDP; 10.7%) with 80 seats, the left-wing party (Die Linke; 9.2%) with 69 seats, and the Green Party (8.9%) with 67 seats.
In distinguishing between the former West and East Germanys, the perspective is even more dramatic, if not alarming. In the former East, the AfD won 22.5% of the vote, just short of the CDU’s 28.2%. In the province of Saxony, the AfD even won the election on the second proportional ballot. The CDU also lost significantly in other provinces. In Bavaria, for example, they were reduced to 44.2%, a loss of 9.8%.
So, what’s wrong with the AfP?
Since its founding in 2013, the AfD has been elected into 13 of the 16 provincial parliaments, where they attack Angela Merkel’s refugee policy more than they contribute to solving provincial problems. This, in and of itself, is not problematic as other (smaller) parties have done the same before (e.g., the Green party). More problematic is the ideology of the AfD and the ongoing fight between moderates and right-wing extremists. What started as a moderate, bourgeois, liberal, elitist group surrounding professor and economist Bernd Lucke, which demanded an alternative to saving the Euro, the AfD has now become a populist, extremist, partially neo-Nazi party that managed to unite both political extremists and protest votes. To be sure, there is no evidence that the latter have yet found a permanent political home in the AfD. Just a few days before the election, for example, AfD Vice-Chair Alexander Gauland noted that Germans should be proud of what their soldiers accomplished in World Wars I and II.
Who voted for the AfD and why?
Contrary to common belief, it is not primarily socially and financially marginalized segments of German society — the unemployed or underemployed — that voted for the AfD. Nor is the AfD only successful in areas with a high density of refugees or foreigners. It is true that the AfD is generally more successful in ridings with higher unemployment and lower income rates. But these voters are not all right-wing extremists — they voted for the AfD because they have no other platform for protest.
Deep cultural conflicts are at play in the former East. One can sense a high degree of dissatisfaction, mistrust, and feeling victimized by the great changes occurring since the peaceful revolution of 1989 when voters kicked out a socialist government. Following in the 1990s, the process of globalization destroyed many traditional social structures. The winners of that process have made it and moved on. They are culturally independent, cosmopolitan, or modern.
The losers of that process, however, cling to traditional, conservative values, and express those values culturally (e.g., no same-sex marriage). While West Germany left those values behind in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the former East holds on to them and shows fundamentally different cultural behaviour. The social movement of Pegida was the first political expression of cultural conflict. Now the AfD has managed to mobilize and instrumentalize it, fuelled by the perceived mismanagement of the government’s so-called “refugee crisis.”
It is precisely these conflicts that are behind the major political shifts witnessed last Sunday. They are most likely to remain.