AfD Makes Dramatic Gains In German Regional Elections, But Doesn't Win
09/02/2019
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It's a start, but it's not quite enough. The populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) made a strong showing in Sunday's regional elections in Saxony. However, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) still topped the polls, though centrist parties definitely took a hit. 

Although preliminary results released early Monday showed a surge in support for the right-wing party, it came in second in both states.

Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union won 32.1 percent of the vote in Saxony; AfD took 27.5 percent. The Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats’ center-left coalition partner in the national parliament, won 26.2 percent in Brandenburg; AfD took 23.5 percent.

The results weren’t as bad for Germany’s traditional parties as they had feared, but still showed a significant shift to the far right, which drew out new voters in an election with greater-than-usual turnout. The drop in support could complicate their efforts to form a ruling coalition. The major parties having ruled out forming coalitions with the AfD. 

“One thing is clear from these results: The AfD came to stay,” Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD leader in Brandenburg, said at an election party. In recent days he acknowledged attending a neo-Nazi rally in Greece more than a decade ago after a leaked report in Der Spiegel. He said he had done so out of “curiosity.”

“Politics without us is no longer possible,” he said. The party won a similar proportion of the vote in federal elections in 2017.

[Far right surges in eastern Germany elections, exit polls show, but falls short of wins, by Loveday Morris and Luisa Beck, Washington Post, September 1, 2019]

Gotta love that drive-by smear by Jeff Bezos's blog.

Obviously, it's a mistake to draw too many lessons from a single regional election. However, some broad trends that we've observed for some time manifested today. First is the division between East and West Germany, with the East more receptive to populist and nationalist movements. 

Still dealing with the collapse of major industries and markets after the Berlin Wall fell, many easterners express frustration and anger at Mr. Merkel’s Christian Democrats for opening the door to a million refugees in 2015, mostly from Arab and African countries.

The AfD has run on a platform of more investment in education and infrastructure, more deportations of foreigners, a ban on mosques with minarets and less “appeasement of foreigners.”

Some of the resentment, analysts say, comes from a feeling of missing out: In spite of billions of dollars in transfer payments from the federal government since reunification in 1991, investment in infrastructure and the emergence of business hubs in cities such as Dresden, many in the east feel they didn’t benefit as Germany powered ahead in the 2000s to become the continent’s economic engine. For example, wages remain lower than in the East and certain professionals such as doctors remain lacking.

“There is a sense that people in the East haven’t done so well and feel left behind,” said Matthias Lang, an attorney with Bird & Bird in Dusseldorf. “Whether that’s true or not is a different question. But it’s clear that the AfD’s support is higher in areas where people feel this way.”

[Germany's anti-immigrant party sees election surge against Angela Merkel's moderates, by Jabeen Bhatti and Eros Banaj, Washington Times, September 1, 2019]

The key problem for the AfD is that modern Germany is, in many ways, a proposition nation built upon "anti-racism." Opposition to "right-wing extremism," broadly defined, in some ways defines modern German identity. Thus, it will be extremely difficult for the AfD to ever form a governing coalition. Keep in mind, Angela Merkel is a conservative by German standards.

The fear of the AfD, whipped up by a hostile media, is a powerful ally for the Establishment. It may have driven the especially high turnout and these elections and turned back an outright AfD victory in one or both regions. In Saxony, where the Social Democrats had the worst result in their history, there's some talk the "conservative" CDU will form a coalition with the Greens [German regional elections produce far-right surge, by Derek Scally, Irish Times, September 1, 2019]

Speaking of the Greens, they actually underperformed. There's some speculation that leftist voters held their nose and voted for the SPD (the center-left Social Democrats) to prevent the AfD from getting first place. 

Nationally, SPD voters aren't happy about being with Angela Merkel in a coalition government. However, they probably don't want early elections for fear that the AfD will gain seats in the national legislature. 

The ruling parties' setbacks were not as major as feared and the results alleviate some pressure on the national coalition led by Merkel, who has loomed large on the European stage since 2005, and could reassure a European Union unnerved by Brexit.

"The results are a reminder of how little CDU and SPD would stand to gain from new elections right now. That might help stabilise Merkel's position, at least for now," said Carsten Nickel, managing director at Teneo, a consultancy.

Much depends on the SPD, which rules with the radical Left party in Brandenburg. The party sank into turmoil after its worst performance in European elections in May, is polling close to record lows and is still searching for a leader.

Many SPD rank-and-file members want to quit a ruling national alliance that has supported Merkel for 10 of her 14 years in power and rebuild in opposition.

[Merkel allies weather far-right surge in German regional elections, ReutersSeptember 2, 2019]

There is reason for hope. Exit polls suggest the AfD has a large amount of support among young voters. 

There is reason to believe the AfD's best days are ahead of it. With Germany possibly on the brink of recession, it may also be better for the AfD to be in opposition just now [Fears of a German recession are rising, The Economist, August 29, 2019].

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