Gains expected for right-wing AfD in German state elections

Uncertainty and anger at migrant crisis has boosted populist party for Sunday’s elections

Even before polls open in Germany’s “Super Sunday” elections, the winner of the three state elections is already clear: the right-wing, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Last year the party enjoyed a run of state parliament wins in eastern Germany and another eastern win is likely on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt, where polls put the AfD in second place.

But Sunday’s vote could be a watershed in German politics if, as polls suggest, the AfD secures double-digit support to enter its first western state parliaments: in Rhineland-Palatinate, on the border to Luxembourg, and in the southwest state of Baden-Württemberg.

Three years after the AfD began life as an economic liberal bailout critical movement, the party is now tapping uncertainty and anger over Germany’s political establishment and, in particular, chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy.


After accepting one million asylum seekers last year, the German leader’s failure to secure an EU burden-sharing deal this week has boosted the AfD. It wants Germany to close its borders, sort asylum seekers from economic migrants and do more to counter a growing Islamist threat.

Opinion is divided in Germany over whether the AfD success will last. Some see a repeat of the 1990s, when fears over mass migration from the Balkans saw voters back far-right parties, including in Baden-Württemberg, before they faded away.

Long-term shift

Others see Sunday’s vote as part of a long-term shift in Germany’s political landscape. The AfD has attracted voters from across the spectrum, from liberals to the left-wingers and even non-voters. But half of its supporters are conservative voters for whom the migration crisis catalysed their disillusionment with Merkel and a party she pushed to the political centre.

The AfD has filled the political gap to the CDU’s right, but its rapid rise in the migration crisis is the work of 40-year-old co-leader Frauke Petry.

She has maximised voter reach and media coverage at minimum cost, through clever use of social media and targeted provocation. At state level, meanwhile, AfD parties have tailored their political messages for their prospective clientele.

Petry's co-leader Jörg Meuthen lead the campaign in the prosperous southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. A moderate, liberal 54-year-old professor, he distances himself from AfD chants of Lügenpresse – lying press – and prefers to talk of "tendentious journalism" directed against his party.

On migrants, he tells a crowd in Bad Krozingen near Freiburg that “no one can reproach” the one million asylum seekers who came to Germany last year. “It’s normal that they go where things are better for them,” he told the crowd, “but the question is: how many can, how many do we want to accept?”

Meuthen’s moderate tone contrasts with a party programme that denies the effects of climate change, criticises the “elevation of non-heterosexuals” and supports a “Day for the Protection of the Homeland”. The AfD proposes that inward migration is not the answer to Germany’s demographic time-bomb, but ending a “much-too-high abortion rate”.

Different package

In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD has packaged itself quite differently. Given the consistently weak economy here, and the struggle of many people to make ends meet, the AfD validates a resentment many here feel at the resources mobilised for the asylum effort.

“More and more people are coming who need to be supported instead of our own people who have it hard,” said Sandra, a 28-year-old who declined to give her surname, in the state capital, Magdeburg.

In rallies party officials warns audiences of an “asylum flood” in Saxony-Anhalt, though the state has been assigned less than three per cent of the total.

Another striking difference is the eastern AfD's vocal concern for das Volk – the people. For many western German ears, "Volk" is a term still burdened with Nazi associations; for many eastern Germans, who grew up in a state where the Nazi era was less thoroughly examined, "Volk" has positive associations with the people power of 1989.

Saxony-Anhalt AfD leader André Poppenburg blames Germany’s open-door response to asylum seekers on “the self-imposed self-flagellation and collective psychosis of the German people”, something his party will end.

Though the AfD has so far kept its distance from the anti-Islamist Pegida movement and neo-Nazi NPD, political scientists see common ground in their use the classic populist playbook to sell themselves as anti-elite movements.

“The AfD want to be the political martyrs and see everything in friend-enemy constellations,” said Prof Karl-Rudolf Korte, of the University Duisburg-Essen on German radio. “When they are caught with right-extreme positions” – such as a recent suggestion that police could shoot migrants entering Germany illegally – “they trivialise it and say it was taken out of context.”