Swiss far-right politician Eric Weber celebrates with supporters of the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany after initial results were reported in state elections in Stuttgart, Germany. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Have we seen this movie before? Across Europe, populist right-wing parties have been surging in prominence, with instances that include the True Finns in Finland, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the National Front in France, and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain.

Until now, Germany has been an anomaly. Because of its history, far-right parties have traditionally fared poorly in the Federal Republic of Germany. We’ve seen flash-in-the-pan successes, such as the now all-but-defunct Republikaner, a fringe right-wing party, which in 1992 received 10.9 percent of the vote in the populous West German state of Baden-Württemberg.

But what we have not seen is a durable far-right party in Germany. Has that day arrived?

A far-right party just won seats in three German state parliaments. Why?

On March 13, three German states held elections for state parliament: Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany and Saxony-Anhalt in the former East Germany. The populist and latently racist newcomer to the German party system, Alternative for Germany (AfD), surged in all three state elections. Most impressively, it received 1 of every 4 votes cast for the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament.

Why? Many voters are frustrated by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees in since the summer and the refusal of any mainstream parties to advocate immigration limits. Meanwhile, the anti-immigrant and socially conservative wing of the AfD recently ejected its Euroskeptic and economically liberal founder Bernd Lucke in a leadership struggle that shifted the party toward a socially conservative and nativist platform.

Germany’s center-left and center-right parties both shifted toward the center.

Germany’s party system has fragmented in recent years. The two traditional catch-all parties, particularly the venerable Social Democrats (SPD), have lost a significant amount of support. The SPD, under Gerhard Schröder, first staked out the center ground in the 1990s, most notably with its “Agenda 2010” liberalizing reforms to labor market regulation. At first, the party won a number of elections, and its policies were economically successful.

But the price was high. Not all members of the SPD were comfortable with the party’s market-oriented reforms. Some split off and merged with a successor party to the East German Communists, creating a lasting nationally represented party on the far left, Die Linke.

The other mainstream party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), led by chancellor Angel Merkel, also has moved to center, from the other side of the ideological spectrum. In fact, the CDU has governed in a coalition with the SPD since 2013 and, before that, from 2005 to 2009. Merkel’s coalition government has, for instance, introduced a minimum wage and lowered the pension age, much to the dismay of the conservative and business-friendly wing of her party. Most notably, she almost singlehandedly opened up the borders to welcome hundreds of thousands of migrants since summer.

Some observers have asked whether the CDU/CSU’s shift to the center under Merkel has enabled a new party to emerge to its right, much as happened to the SPD on the left.

Did the far-right AfD take seats away from the mainstream CDU?

How much did the AfD really gain at the expense of the CDU? In our first figure, we plot out poll percentages over time for the three states in which the center-right is represented by the centrist CDU, and then compare those to one state, Bavaria, in which the CDU’s sister party, the conservative and refugee-skeptical CSU, serves this role.

If the AfD surged because the CDU has moved too far toward the center, we would expect to see greater gains for it in the three CDU states that held elections than in Bavaria. The CSU, which competes exclusively in Bavaria, has not moved toward the center like its sister party, the CDU. In fact, the CSU has been very vocal in its demands for limits on refugee inflows.

As you can see, AfD gains have in fact been the lowest in Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate.


Vote intention for the Alternative für Deutschland (in %) in four German states
Data: wahlrecht.de; Figure: Arndt Leininger

If AfD gains have come at the CDU’s and CSU’s expense, we would also expect to see a negative correlation between their vote shares. And indeed, we see strong negative correlation (-.8) in each of the three CDU states that had elections.

That’s less true in Bavaria, however, where the relationship between the refugee-skeptical CSU’s and the AfD’s poll numbers is only half as strong. In other words, the evidence supports the idea that the CDU’s shift to the center and welcome for migrants has opened the way for a new challenger on the right.

The loss in support for the CDU is also notably larger than for the more conservative Bavarian CSU, as shown in our second figure. The CDU — despite the efforts of party leaders at the state level to distance themselves from the national party’s liberal policies — lost considerable electoral support, much of it likely to the AfD. In contrast, in Bavaria, the refugee-skeptical CSU has largely maintained its level of support.


Vote intention for the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) (in %) in four German states
Data: wahlrecht.de; Figure: Arndt Leininger

Estimates of vote-switching provided by the national public broadcasting company ARD between elections based on exit polls suggest that the CDU has indeed suffered the greatest loss of voters to the AfD among the established parties.

However, in all three states — Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt — citizens who previously didn’t vote were the biggest block of new votes for AfD. In Saxony-Anhalt, the left-wing party Die Linke suffered the second-highest losses to the AfD, suggesting that protest votes have moved on to the AfD, leapfrogging the center.

Taken together, these results indicate that the CDU’s centrism, in general, and liberal refugee policy, in particular, may explain much of the AfD’s striking success.

The AfD now has a new source of campaign funds . . .

Whether the AfD will continue its success in the future is uncertain. Several things suggest it will not. Despite Germany’s continuing shift toward normality, the stigma for the nationalist right is still strong, particularly nationally. Right-wing parties have entered state parliaments from time to time but never the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament.

Many supporters voted for the AfD out of disillusionment with the whole political system and many others because no other party offered a policy platform that allowed them to express skepticism about the government’s liberal refugee policy.

If the salience of the refugee issue recedes along with the flow of migrants to Germany, that would erode the AfD’s most successful issue. The AfD originally started out as a Eurosceptic party and garnered 4.7 percent of the vote in the 2013 national election, barely below Germany’s 5 percent electoral threshold for taking seats in the Budestag. It successfully shifted its focus to the refugee issue and shift again.

Because of Germany’s public campaign-finance system, the AfD’s three-state win means it will now be partly funded by the government. Further, in Germany, members of parliament (including state parliaments) donate part of their salaries to their parties — which becomes the single-most important source of revenues for small parties.

Those funds will allow AfD to build bigger campaigns for the 2017 national election than it could manage in 2013.

. . . but more attention may also hurt the party. 

Yet, the additional attention the party will receive may hurt more than it helps. In Saxony-Anhalt, the party will have 24 MPs — despite having only about 300 official members. In other words, 8 percent of its state membership will hold seats in the state parliament. Expect a number of gaffes that will tarnish the AfD’s self-proclaimed image as right-wing but not extremist.

What does it all mean?

Does this mean that Germany now has a durable populist right-wing party to mirror the success of Die Linke on the left?

That may  depend on whether the CDU remains in the center. Merkel must decide this summer whether she will lead the party in the 2017 elections. If she steps down, the CDU could shift back to the right, depriving the AfD of support before it can undermine Germany’s taboo against the far-right and become an ongoing institution.

Mark Kayser is professor of applied methods and comparative politics at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. Find him on Twitter @kayserma.

Arndt Leininger is a doctoral student at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. Find him on Twitter @a_leininger.