October 9, 2023 - 9:35am

People often ask why Germany’s far-Right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is doing so well in the territories that were once East Germany. It is tempting to write off their upward trajectory as a regional phenomenon because it allows Berlin to continue business as usual. Yet, while the AfD is undeniably more popular in the east, disaffection with the status quo is widespread across Germany. Yesterday’s elections in two of the country’s most populous states demonstrated this once again.

On Sunday, Bavaria and Hesse — two large and wealthy states in what was once West Germany — went to the polls to vote for new state parliaments. In both, the AfD made significant gains, becoming the second largest party in Hesse and the third largest in Bavaria. In both, it was able to draw voters from all other parties, including those currently in government in Berlin: the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Liberals (FDP). 

For the time being, the AfD can and will be kept out of power, regardless of its electoral surge. In both Bavaria and Hesse, the other parties have ruled out forming a coalition with it and will make attempts to form a majority in some other way. But they should understand this as an emergency break rather than a quick fix; as buying time while they work out answers to the questions that concern people. 

One of the biggest issues is Germany’s unbalanced political offering. On the progressive side of the spectrum, voters can choose between different political parties. But on the conservative end, Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship has created a vacuum. Following her leadership, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has shifted further towards the centre, leaving its voters no choice but to follow or switch to the far-Right AfD. 

The elections in Bavaria and Hesse, both states with many socially conservative voters, seem to indicate that there is a desire to restore centre-right options. In Bavaria, the CDU’s sister party CSU once dominated. Between 1970 and 2003, it ran the state with an absolute majority despite a system of proportional representation. Since then, it’s lost its profile in the eyes of many Bavarians. Yesterday, it still won the election but received its worst result since 1950, while haemorrhaging voters to the AfD and the conservative Free Voters party.

In Hesse, the CDU also won — and actually managed to increase its support — but the AfD received over 18% of votes and it won’t be easy to form a coalition that keeps it in opposition. Flinging a group of parties together that can’t agree to pass legislation is likely to confirm perceptions of a disunited political mainstream without clarity of vision or sense of purpose. 

A representative survey taken shortly before the elections in Bavaria and Hesse indicated that local issues didn’t play a vital role in either state. Three-quarters of respondents said they were worried about big issues such as the bleak economic situation and the rising numbers of refugees. That’s not to mention a federal government led by a chancellor who comes across as sluggish and reluctant in the face of the problems Germany is facing. 

The next German federal election may only be in 2025, but the established parties should act now, coming up with viable strategies to address concerns and communicate plans better to the public. Sunday’s state elections were a clear sign that trust has broken down between them and big sections of the electorate. Two years may not be enough to fix that, but it’s plenty of time to make a start.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.