Is the political ground shifting in Germany?

Before the three state elections in Germany on Sunday, March 13 many saw Angela Merkel’s CDU party in for a rough ride because of her policies towards Syrian refugees.

After the election many of the headlines were similar to this one from the NYT: Setback for Angela Merkel as Far Right Makes Gains in Germany. A closer reading presents a more complicated picture.

Many saw the elections as a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policies. They weren’t, but the issue did change votes and perhaps reshaped politics in Germany.

First some orientation. This is where the three states are, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg in the rich southwest and Saxony-Anhalt in the former East Germany:

elections 2016_20160319_wom903_1

For decades the two main parties in Germany have been the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) (along with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU) on the one hand, and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) on the other. Typically these two accounted for 80% of the vote.

To the right there was the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP) and since 1980 to the left the Greens (strictly now Alliance ’90/The Greens).

Since 2007 on the extreme left we’ve had the Left Party, strong enough in the former East Germany to participate in government in Brandenburg and Thuringia.

Then in 2013 the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded, right-wing populist and Eurosceptic, but from 2015 when the Alliance for Progress and Renewal split off from the AfD, virulently anti-immigration. From a standing start the AfD’s success has been stunning:

    The result was something of a political earthquake in Germany. AfD didn’t even exist as a political party the last time voters in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt went to the polls. But it came away with 15.1 percent, 12.6 percent and an astounding 24.2 percent of the vote respectively in the three elections. Many are reading it as a repudiation of Merkel’s refugee crisis leadership.

In the Saxony-Anhalt results the AfD is the second largest party by a fair margin. But in the election the big losers were the Left, the SPD and the Greens, the CDU not so much. Coalition building got harder, however. Previously the CDU was in coalition with the SPD. Now it would have to include the Greens for a 2-seat majority.

From where I sit there appear to be special considerations in each state. For example in Baden-Württemberg plans to remodel the main railway station were exploited in the 2011 election by the Greens because of heritage considerations and trees (see Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof and Stuttgart 21). Back then the Greens edged out the SPD as the second largest party, and was able to form a left coalition to oust the CDU. In 2016 the SPD vote declined by 10.4% to 12.7 while the Greens increased by 6.1% to 30.3. In effect the Green are replacing the SPD as the leading centrist left party.

In the other two states the Green vote languishes at about 5%. In fact in Rhineland-Palatinate the Greens were the big losers, declining by 10.1%.

Several commentators have remarked that Angela Merkel had “managed to transform the CDU into a green-liberal-social democratic amalgam, having largely exorcised conservatism from the party.”

The effect of this and the repeated coalition-building between the SPD, the CDU and the Greens has led to a situation where the public is not sure what these parties really stand for. So we have a fractured centre and protest parties, left and now with the AfD emerging on the right. In the case of the AfD it is clearer what they stand against, rather than what they stand for.

Leaving aside the right-wing FDP (it never seems to get above single figures) and counting the Greens as a mainstream party, the mainstream vote in the western states still holds up at 70-73%. The extremes are at a manageable 15 to 18%. In Saxony-Anhalt the left and right extremes almost exactly match the CDU/SPD vote at about 40%.

This article looked at exit polling and found that a majority of voters in all three states supported Merkel’s refugee policy.

Krishnadev Calamur at The Atlantic confirms that view, but points out the the FDP as well as the AfD increased its votes in all three states with an anti-refugee stance.


    In both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU candidates were vocal opponents of Merkel’s position on Syrian refugees. Indeed, the victors in both these places, the ruling center-left coalition, strongly supported Merkel’s policy. In Baden-Württemberg, nearly 8 in 10 voters said they supported welcoming refugees, according to exit polls; in Rhineland-Palatinate, the exit polls showed, nearly a third said they switched their support from the CDU to the Greens because of their more posture toward refugees.

(That last comment is puzzling, because in fact the Greens vote declined by about two-thirds, while the CDU vote slipped by about a tenth.)

Being a “vocal opponent” does not necessarily mean being entirely anti-refugee. The CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU has quite robust differences, calling for quotas and threatening court action, as this rather testy interview shows.

This take-out from Calamur seems apposite:

    If these election results indicate anything it is that Germans are still trying to balance the need to help those fleeing civil war and unrest with their own insecurities in the face of the newcomers.

    “A million immigrants later, Germans are shaken,” Bernd Ulrich wrote in Die Zeit, “but Germany’s civil society has shown its resilience.”

    The German government’s own response to the election results has been unequivocal: A spokesman said there would be no change in policy toward the migrants.

There will be no change in policy, but meanwhile the political system may be bifurcating between mainstream and fringe to left and right. The real problem starts when the fringes become large and the mainstream either has to go left or right to govern.

The AfD now have 61 elected politicians. It looks as though they will be around for quite a while.

It may seem as though the system is fracturing, but democracy is at work. Germany scores well in the Electoral integrity index displayed in this article.

This is how the situation looks graphically:


2 thoughts on “Is the political ground shifting in Germany?”

  1. Attaboy Brian! Great analysis! I appoint you herewith Foreign Correspondent with seat in Berlin. You’re just a bit too easy on the AfD. Apart from: No immigrants! If necessary shoot them at the borders! they have absolutely nothing to say. It is telling that they are the most numerous in the East which has experience in this – only the direction of the people to be shot at has changed.
    From up above to down under!

  2. C.J. glad to get confirmation from you that I was roughly on the right track. Actually Merkel is an important leader in the free world, will possibly be the most important next year if the US does the unthinkable!

    Probably the refugee issue will not seriously harm Merkel’s electoral chances next year. No-one else seems to have a better idea of what to do.

    Another point I didn’t make is that the former East Germany states appear to be less cosmopolitan than the former West Germany, which also had to absorb the Germans who left or were evicted from Eastern Europe at the end of the War. Tony Judt put these at about 13 million, some of whom of course emigrated from Europe.

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