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German Voters Trigger a Political Earthquake

The far-right AfD surged ahead in the European Union elections. It is now one of Germany’s dominant parties, and not just part of the fringe. 

By Michael Bröning

June 2024

Following a hectic campaign season characterized by street protests, espionage plots worthy of airport thrillers, and shocking incidents of violence against parliamentary candidates from across the ideological spectrum, Germany experienced nothing short of a political earthquake in the June 6–9 European Parliament elections. While analysts decry the “broken axis of the old Federal Republic,” Germany’s political class is clearly struggling to make sense of what happened. When asked by a journalist whether he wanted to comment on the election results, Chancellor Olaf Scholz replied, “Nope.” An exceptionally short response even for a leader rarely celebrated for his rhetorical passion.

Although the center-right Christian Democrats emerged as the strongest party with 30 percent of the vote, the biggest gains were achieved by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which received almost 16 percent of the vote, up from 11 percent in 2009.

In contrast, Berlin’s governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and free-market liberals (FDP) drastically lost support. The SPD, in particular, performed poorly. Despite the heavy personal investment of Chancellor Scholz — who appeared alongside Katarina Barley, the SPD’s European Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate for European Commission president), on election posters — his party suffered a historic defeat, winning only 13.9 percent of the vote.

As it stands, the so-called traffic-light coalition does not enjoy majority support in any of Germany’s four-hundred counties. “Pulverization is still too weak a verb for what the SPD, Greens and FDP are experiencing in East Germany,” a prominent far-right website sneered. News media have openly called for new elections.

As the dust settles and the 96 newly elected German members of the European Parliament prepare for the inaugural session in Strasbourg, three fundamental shifts promise to have particularly long-lasting effects on Germany’s electoral map.

A Step to the Right

If there is one clear signal from election night, it is this: The AfD has now firmly established itself as the second-strongest party in the country. Gaining 5 percentage points compared to the last European vote, the party will be entering the new European Parliament with fifteen deputies. Electoral maps illustrating the AfD’s dominant position in the east highlight the stark political divide between east and west in the formerly divided country. In eastern Germany, the AfD has clearly emerged as the strongest political force.

Notably, support for the AfD now extends beyond economically marginalized voters. Contrary to widespread stereotypes of the AfD as a party of the old and grumpy, the far right now garners support from all walks of life, age groups, and educational backgrounds, while also bringing together urban and rural voters. A noteworthy exception remains a persistent gender gap, with men much more likely to vote AfD than women (19 percent versus 12 percent).

The far right has also clearly established itself as the new home of the blue-collar vote, with 33 percent of workers voting AfD. However, what has emerged is not so much a new workers’ party as it is a slimmed-down version of a catchall party that successfully appeals to a wider sociodemographic stratum: 17 percent of the self-employed and 15 percent of employees voted AfD.

Remarkably, the party seems to attract voters not despite but because of its ideological positions. In this, the AfD may very well have finally moved past being a mere protest party. A postelection survey conducted for the German public broadcaster ARD reports that while 44 percent of voters said they support the AfD out of disappointment with establishment parties, 51 percent of voters support the AfD for explicitly ideological reasons. Five years ago, those results were reversed. The main ideological drivers for voters this year were immigration (46 percent) and the war in Ukraine (17 percent). Given this shift, centrist parties will have to make more than cosmetic changes to win back AfD voters.

In fact, with upcoming elections in three eastern German states, building anything resembling stable government coalitions may prove difficult. In Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony, even the combined strength of all parties currently in state parliaments may not be sufficient to form a majority against the AfD’s overwhelming strength. The “specter of ungovernability” has become a possible if not likely scenario.

But while these outlooks are concerning for many, the AfD’s triumph should be put in perspective. Unsurprisingly, AfD leader Tino Chrupalla hailed his party’s performance as a “historical success.” In truth, however, the results fell short of both aspirations and expectations — polling from the beginning of the year had the AfD crossing the 20 percent threshold. Given that European elections are frequently used for casting protest votes and thus tend to overrepresent political dissatisfaction, this year’s outcome, while certainly representing an important step forward for the AfD, was not the giant leap the party had hoped for.

In this context, it is likely that anti-AfD mass protests throughout the spring had a measurable impact on the party’s performance at the polls. Moreover, recent controversies surrounding AfD staffers accused of illegal connections to Russia and China as well as ambiguous comments by the AfD’s top candidate about the Waffen-SS to an Italian newspaper did not exactly help the party’s case with moderate voters.

Age Matters

German progressive parties have lost the support of young voters. The Greens suffered most, winning only 11 percent of the vote among 16-to-24-year-olds. This was a staggering loss of 23 percentage points compared to 2019. Instead, the AfD emerged as the strongest party, on par with the Christian Democrats, with young voters.

In many ways, this development mirrors trends elsewhere in Europe. In France, Italy, and across Eastern Europe, young voters have long been a consistent driving force of far-right electoral success. Now, this trend has reached Germany. The German press and political analysts tend to cite inflation and increasing competition, especially in the housing market, as key drivers of discontent among young Germans. While this seems plausible, it must be noted that the AfD skillfully nurtured those feelings of discontent on social media, especially TikTok, where the party has pioneered strategic community building. Of course, time will tell whether this trend is lasting. Young voters often display higher ideological volatility and weaker party allegiance. But for now, the trend holds. And while a far-right youth vote may be old news for Europe or the United States, it is a recent phenomenon in Germany that poses a formidable challenge for the country’s progressive parties.

The newly founded eponymous party (BSW) of the far-left politician Sahra Wagenknecht has managed to tap into widespread public unease with the war in Ukraine and migration. Gaining 6.2 percent of the vote, the party passed its first electoral test on the federal level. The BSW’s showing was particularly strong in eastern Germany, where it emerged as the third-biggest force — an impressive result for a six-month-old movement. The party largely eclipsed Wagenknecht’s previous political home, the far-left, formerly communist Linke party. While the Linke received only 2.7 percent of the vote and three seats in Brussels, the party is polling higher in upcoming state elections. Thus counting it out for good might be premature. Instead, further fragmentation is likely in the cards.

Importantly, widespread expectations that the rise of Wagenknecht would weaken the far right by splitting the protest vote have been disappointed — at least for now. In fact, support for the BSW is coming mostly from former SPD voters, with more than half a million Social Democrats shifting to Wagenknecht.

An Impending Crisis

These political shifts in Germany may not directly translate into political turmoil in Brussels. Despite significant change in several EU member states, the three biggest political groups in the new European Parliament remain unchanged, with the Christian Democrat’s Ursula von der Leyen on track to gain a second term as president of the European Commission. Somewhat ironically, the biggest repercussions of this European election are thus likely to play out on the national level — a reminder of what has been charitably described as Europe’s “democratic deficit.” But just as in France and Belgium, the consequences for national politics in Germany, and for Chancellor Scholz personally, may indeed be momentous.

Scholz has thus far firmly rejected demands to follow French president Emmanuel Macron’s example and call for early elections. Yet opposition is growing from outside and from within Scholz’s own support base. Against the backdrop of stagnant growth, geopolitical tensions, and shifting political allegiances, the chancellor now faces a delicate balancing act: appeasing disgruntled voters by shifting on crucial issues such as migration and climate change while somehow also managing to avoid further eroding a shaky coalition and the remaining support within his shrinking SDP base. If one thing is clear, the forces driving an impending crisis must be addressed.

Michael Bröning is a political scientist and a member of the basic-value commission of the German Social Democratic Party.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images




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