September 2, 2019 - 1:37pm

Saxony and Brandenburg are neighbouring states in what used to be East Germany. In regional elections over the weekend support for the national populist AfD surged in both states, putting the party in a strong second place (to the Social Democrats in Brandenburg and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Saxony).

Fears of a populist victory in one or both elections didn’t quite come to pass. But that doesn’t mean that the established parties should breathe a sigh of relief. Support for the AfD has surged despite party’s constant in-fighting. One wonders what a more a more capable leadership might be able to achieve – think of a German Viktor Orban and shudder.

The AfD’s vote share is also a symptom of eastern Germany’s deep unhappiness. A lot of nations have a “flyover county” – regions that are alienated from centres of political, economic and cultural power. But Germany’s flyover country, the east, is special in that from 1945 to 1990 it truly was a separate country – the so-called German Democratic Republic

Next year marks the thirtieth anniversary of German reunification – decades of long, hard struggle to integrate the ex-communist east into the democratic west. A must-read report from Tobias Buck in the Financial Times shows just how partial a success that struggle has been. For me, one statistic in particular stands out:

Looking at Germany as a whole, the region [the former German Democratic Republic] is even more under-represented: a study from 2017 found that eastern Germans held just 1.7 per cent of top jobs in politics, the federal courts, the military and business, even though the east accounted for 17 per cent of the population.
- Tobias Buck, Financial Times

It’s not all bad news – unemployment in the east is at record lows and economic growth is faster than in the west. However, as long as whole swathes of a population are made to feel like outsiders in their own country, populists will continue to find support – and one day a leader might emerge who knows how to turn that support into power.

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