germany’s shifting political landscape — part one: the election shock

Sunday’s regional election in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (MV) saw the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland – AfD) make significant gains. Not a complete surprise, but shocking nonetheless. The party — which didn’t even exist at the last MV election — is now the second largest in the state (20.8%), behind the Social Democrats (SPD, 30.6%; -5%) and beating Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) into third place (19%; -4%). Naturally, this raises some big questions: who voted for the AfD? What is the wider significance of the MV result? What can we expect to happen next? These are the questions I explore in this blog, the first of two pieces reflecting on the MV election. In the second post, I’ll be thinking about a related question (one close to my own heart): where does the MV result leave the Left Party, one of the election’s biggest ‘losers’ (13.2%; -5.2%)? [1]

who are the AfD voters?

Let’s start with a few key facts and figures [2]. The AfD appeals most strongly to men (25% of male voters, compared to 18% of female voters) and those aged between thirty and fifty-nine (24%). In terms of education, the higher the level of academic qualification, the lower the propensity to vote for the AfD; a complete contrast to the Left Party and Greens, whose voter share increases in line with educational attainment. However, perhaps the most significant indication concerns voter occupation. While popular among salaried and public sector employees (18% and 17% respectively) as well as the self-employed (21%), it is among waged workers that the AfD performed particularly well. To put this into perspective: workers in MV are almost as likely (27% vs. 28%) to vote for the AfD as they are for the SPD — the traditional mass party of labour — and more likely to cast their vote for the AfD than for the Left Party.

As the AfD is a newcomer, it is also interesting to look at the previous voting behaviour of its supporters; in other words, where have AfD voters come from and who have they left behind? The party enticed voters away from the other three parliamentary parties: the SPD accounted for the greatest share (18%) with the CDU also hard hit (16%). Meanwhile, the 11% of voters that switched from the Left Party almost certainly contributed to the latter’s weak performance among waged workers, traditionally its core group. As expected, a further key source of support was former far-right NPD voters (14%). However, by far the largest source of AfD support — some 35% — was people who had not voted at all in the previous election.

is the result unique to MV and what is its significance?

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image: blickpixel/pixabay

To be honest, it’s difficult to say whether we’re witnessing a general surge in right-wing populism and attitudes. However, I do think it’s worth bearing in mind a few important points.

First, the far right has long been embedded in MV [3], but it would be both lazy and misguided to sneer at AfD voters as being somehow ‘typical’ of a sparsely populated eastern backwater with a predilection for right-wing extremism. The current spate of violence against asylum seekers and their accommodation is far from unique to MV; indeed, there has been a nationwide outbreak of such attacks. And as the AfD celebrates its MV result (to add to its even stronger performance in Saxony Anhalt earlier this year), it’s worth remembering that the party’s success is by no means confined to the East; the AfD is now present in nine of Germany’s regional parliaments. So there is no room for dismissiveness or complacency. Furthermore, messages from the federal government — from reviewing the circumstances that would allow domestic deployment of the army to ramping up the controversy over female islamic clothing — contribute to a populist rhetoric that crowds out alternative, more tolerant voices. (Meanwhile, the fallout from MV has prompted demands for the CDU to move to the right, and greater emphasis on the ‘will of the German people’.) 

Secondly, let’s think about why people voted for the AfD. The obvious answer would be migration — a topic that continues to dominate political discussion at all levels. In a poll of MV voters, the biggest political problem most commonly identified was jobs (33%), with migration/integration following some way behind (25%). Asked whether migration/integration was influential in determining party choice, participants were evenly split in their response, although AfD voters predictably attached far greater importance to this issue (82%). But which parties were seen to be best equipped to effectively confront these problems? The SPD was most trusted (33%) to deal with the primary concern, employment. Conversely, just three per cent felt the AfD was best placed to improve the job situation. On the topic of migration/integration, the SPD was again considered most competent (25%), ahead of the AfD (17%). So far, then, hardly a convincing endorsement of AfD readiness to solve the two most pressing challenges in MV.

But we also need to look beyond policy competence to understand AfD support. In the poll, two-thirds of respondents believed the real motivation for voting AfD was to ‘send a message’ to the other, more established parties. Even among AfD voters, while the majority (53%) specified policy convictions, a considerable 42% cited sending a ‘message’ as their chief motivation. Clearly, then, dissatisfaction plays an important role. But why the AfD specifically? Why not the Left Party, which historically has also successfully mobilised the protest vote? One explanation is that the Left Party has in a sense become a victim of its own success. The party is well established in MV, and has experience of government responsibility, as the junior partner in SPD-led coalitions. Therefore, it is not seen as an ‘outsider’ or as an alternative — despite clear policy contrasts between the Left and the other parliamentary parties. Indeed, this is another problem in itself: the Left Party is struggling to make its voice heard in the often strident public discussion on migration and integration. I’ll be looking at both of these challenges in part two. 

what happens next?

Four parliamentary groups will take their seats in MV’s new parliament: the SPD, still the largest party (26 seats); the CDU (16); the AfD (18) and, now the smallest group, the Left Party (11) (Source: Landeswahlleiterin MV). The SPD will be tasked with forming a governing coalition. Two options are on the table: a continuation of the ‘Grand Coalition’ (SPD and CDU) or a ‘red-red’ coalition with the Left Party. From the perspective of a workable majority, the Grand Coalition is the most obvious choice. However, the strengths of such coalitions — large majorities and bringing the major political rival into the government fold — are also their fundamental flaw. Grand Coalitions can appear complacent, with little to fear from the smaller parties who now form the only opposition. The continuation of MV’s ten-year-old coalition would say, ‘you’ve had your protest — now it’s business as usual’. The second option, a red-red coalition, could represent change by emphasising more social solutions to MV’s challenges and, importantly, a shift in the language framing them. However, the coalition would have a shaky majority of just one; moreover, there is deep scepticism within the Left Party itself, based on the (justifiable) fear that its role as junior partner would be limited to making up numbers, rather than making a real difference. This is also explored in part two.     

At the time of writing, it appears the SPD favours a continuation of the Grand Coalition (perhaps with an eye on next year’s General Election). In the meantime, the question remains whether the AfD vote will strengthen parties’ resolve to stand firm and fend off the populist threat — or bend to it.   

Part two will follow soon — to receive email notification of this and all new posts please follow the blog (see the ‘follow’ button at the foot of the page). 

Notes:

[1] Provisional election result and percentage increas/decrease compared to the previous regional election (2011). Source: Landeswahlleiterin Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

[2] The data reported in this article is sourced from pre-election surveys (September) and exit polls carried out by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen. All data (and plenty more, in German) is available here.

[3] The extreme-right NPD won seats in the last two regional parliaments. Sadly, MV is no stranger to xenophobic violence: in 1992, a home for asylum seekers in the city of Rostock was set on fire by right-wing extremists, cheered on by thousands.

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