June 5, 2023 - 10:00am

Germany’s 2021 federal election appeared to be a turning point: the end of the Merkel era, but also a major setback for the populist Right. 

Just four years earlier, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had surged to third place in the 2017 election. With 94 seats, the AfD was the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. Hence the widespread relief in 2021, when the Right-wingers slumped to fifth place and lost 11 seats. For establishment liberals across Europe, it was what they were waiting for — a sure sign the populist wave had peaked and crashed.

But as I’ve argued before, populism should be thought of as a tide, not a wave. The latest polling from Germany makes it abundantly clear that the populist tide is rising again. Since last year, AfD support has been on an upward trend, to the extent that the party is now tied with the Social Democrats in second place.

German federal election voting intentions, 3rd June 2023. Source: Wahlrecht.de

Far from being a busted flush, Right-wing populism is as strong now as it’s ever been — and not just in Germany. Indeed, it’s a potent force in all the “big five” EU countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland.

In Spain, Vox made significant gains in last week’s regional elections and is well placed to gain a share of national power in next month’s general election. In Italy and Poland, national populist parties are already in government. And in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is leading the polls — despite competition from a rival Rightist, Éric Zemmour.

British Rejoiners are still pretending not to notice, but there’s little doubt that the continental Right is back in a big way. The only question is how far they’ll go this time. 

The last big surge came in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. Immigration is still a major concern, but today’s European leaders are unlikely to throw open their borders as Angela Merkel did in Germany. Another significant issue in 2015 was the Eurozone crisis, yet that too is now of diminished salience.

This time, the key driver of German populist sentiment appears to be the conflict with Russia over Ukraine. The impact on energy prices has worked to the AfD’s advantage — especially in the former East Germany, where pro-Moscow sympathies linger.

Is this another temporary effect? Not if the disruption to Germany’s economic model is only just starting. In the long run, the surge of car exports from China could prove to be of greater consequence than the interruption to energy supplies from Russia. 

Though Europe has come through Covid and may yet prevail against Putin, the EU’s underlying problems — including its economic vulnerability, political paralysis and democratic deficit — are fundamentally unresolved. That is why populism keeps on coming back, as a force for permanent discontent to offset the permanent establishment in Brussels and Frankfurt. 

There is one thing that is shifting, though, and that’s the determination of the elites to exclude the populists from power. This effort has already collapsed in Italy, is giving way in Spain, and is looking shaky in France. But, to date, Germany has stood firm. The AfD is excluded from national coalitions and also from all sixteen of the country’s state governments. 

Of course, that wasn’t so difficult when the party was on 10% of the vote. On 20% it becomes harder. For the moment, the centre still holds, but for how much longer can it resist? 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.