It has been quite the week for Alternative for Germany (AfD). Hot on the heels of winning a run-off election for the post of district administrator in the eastern town of Sonneberg, the party now also boasts its first elected mayor in the small town of Raguhn-Jeßnitz in Saxony-Anhalt. As of yesterday, 42-year-old Hannes Loth can claim to have broken yet another ceiling for Germany’s most Right-wing political movement. Although these are small districts in parts of what used to constitute East Germany, it demonstrates that the recent AfD polling gains are beginning to have real political consequences.
In the lands of the former German Democratic Republic (excluding Berlin) the AfD is now the most popular party, polling at 32% compared to the second-placed CDU’s 23%. In the state of Thuringia, the AfD is leading in every poll for the state election in 2024, raising the real possibility of the party gaining its first state governor.
While both the media and the political establishment have a hard time explaining recent successes, the electorate itself seems less mystified. Stefan Aust, a former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel — Germany’s most influential weekly newspaper — argues that the rise of the AfD can be best explained by the Leftward shift of the CDU’s Christian conservatives under Angela Merkel. As that party has become conservative in name only, Alternative für Deutschland is increasingly seen as a literal alternative for voters from the political centre to the far-Right. The current coalition government and chancellor Olaf Scholz see the problem in a failed communication strategy, and dismiss the AfD as a “populist bad-mood party”.
Unfortunately for Scholz and his coalition partners, most Germans are currently in a bad mood as far as politics is concerned. The AfD’s polling figures are obviously some way from a majority, but what should worry the established parties is the 60% of the population who believe that none of the current parties can solve the country’s problems. That disaffected majority do not necessarily have faith in the AfD either, but the Right-wing party can offer something the others cannot: a voice of protest. Germans are increasingly being faced with a choice between turning their back on the political system altogether or voting for the party the establishment has painted as a bogeyman — a dismissal which only makes the AfD seem more attractive.
Back in the 2002 German federal elections, the conservatives and social democrats garnered 77% of the overall vote; today they would barely get 46%, a decline of over 30% for the so-called “people’s parties”. This is the real story behind the rise of the AfD. It has not benefited from newfound popularity so much as the complete implosion of its rivals’ traditional support base.
Support levels of 20% may not win the party a majority, but this translates into real political power if the most popular party only gets 26%. German policymakers are deluding themselves when they seek comfort in the fact that 80% of the population is not voting for the AfD, since — as things stand — it would take a shift of a few percentage points for it to be the dominant party in the German Bundestag.
The rise of the AfD might come to an end at some point, but the decline of the traditional parties is only just beginning.