Right-wing AfD the big winner in German state elections

Voters punished Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in all three elections

Germany's right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has raised its presence to half of the country's 16 federal states - including two western parliaments - after closely-watched state elections dominated by the migration crisis.

Voters punished chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in all three elections, with a disaster of historic proportions likely in its one-time south-western heartland of Baden-Württemberg.

As voting concluded at 6pm local time, exit polls showed the AfD - founded just three years ago - with double digit support in the two western states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate of 12.5 and 11 per cent respectively.

In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt exit polls gave the Saxony-Anhalt AfD a record 22 per cent - the highest result for a new party in postwar German history.


"We have fundamental problems in Germany that lead to this result," said Frauke Petry, AfD co-leader. She said the high turnout was a reflection of voter concerns, not attempts by her party to stir up fears over migration and Islam. "We are not stoking up fear but addressing problems and want to force other parties into a debate about (political) content."

The election result was clear slap in the face of Germany’s political establishment, with all three outgoing state coalitions – various combinations of CDU, SPD and Greens - now struggling to return their existing coalitions to power.

Almost 13 million people - around one in five German voters - were called to the polls yesterday to choose new state parliaments. After campaigns dominated by Germany’s growing migration crisis, election turnout was up significantly in all three states.

Voter uncertainty and anger over Dr Merkel’s migration strategy saw drops in support for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in all three states. Six months after Dr Merkel adopted a “we can manage this” mantra towards migration, the “Super Sunday” election were the first big electoral test of the German leader and a policy that has seen over one million asylum applications in the last 12 months.

In Baden-Württemberg, projections saw the CDU down almost 12 points to less than 28 per cent, its worst result there since 1952. In the other states it was down around three per cent each.

Anticipating Sunday’s negative result, Dr Merkel said in the last days of campaigning it was a “waste of time” to speculate over the role she and her migration politics had played in the state election results.

"We would have wished for better result, particularly in Baden-Württemberg, there's no point trying to sugarcoat that," said Michael Grosse-Bömer, CDU parliamentary floor leader in the Bundestag.

The state elections were a disaster, too, for the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), with minimal gains in Rhineland Palatinate overshadowed by a dramatic collapse in support of around 10 points in the two other states.

Its poor showing in Baden-Württemberg, neck-and-neck in exit polls with the AfD at 13 per cent, means the outgoing Green-SPD coalition may not return to power in Stuttgart.

Despite gains for the hard right AfD the party is likely to remain in opposition in all three states. After drawing support from non-voters and disillusioned CDU voters, their gains have rewritten coalition arithmetic across Germany.

One irony of the election evening: despite losing support to the AfD, the CDU results may actually help the chancellor’s party enter government in at least one extra federal state.

Opinion is divided over whether the AfD’s support signals a long-term change in Germany’s political landscape or a mirror of far-right successes enjoyed in the wake of a Balkan migration wave in the 1990s.

Dr Merkel and her supporters insist support for the AfD is a diffuse protest vote, which will dissipate after EU leaders agree a co-ordinated plan to cut asylum numbers.

But the electoral drubbing will see regional CDU leaders stepping u pressure on Dr Merkel to press for a permanent burden-sharing deal with other EU countries and Turkey at the next summit in Brussels this week.

Jubilant AfD leaders say they are here to stay. After almost entering the Bundestag in 2013 on an anti-bailout ticket, they are confident they have found a base for long-term success with their anti-migration, anti-establishment message.

After today’s wins, attention will focus now on the AfD’s party conference next month, at which it is likely to agree on a long-delayed party programme.

Leading AfD figures have suggested the migration theme has run its course and have identified an “anti-Islam strategy” as the “the most explosive theme of all”.

"Like no other theme in the programme, the press will pounce on our rejection of political Islam," wrote Dr Beatrix von Storch, the AfD's leader in Berlin and a member of the European Parliament, in a leaked memo.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin