Germany’s Far-Right Is Creeping Ever Closer to Power

Extremists will triumph in this weekend’s regional elections—and Angela Merkel’s party is starting to see their appeal.

Supporters waving flags during the inaugural AfD election rally in Brandenburg state elections on July 13, 2019 in Cottbus, Germany.
Supporters waving flags during the inaugural AfD election rally in Brandenburg state elections on July 13, 2019 in Cottbus, Germany. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

International media will likely hail the Sept. 1 German state elections in Saxony and Brandenburg as major victories for the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Understandably so. The AfD’s tally of the vote in Saxony will swell from 9.7 percent to perhaps as high as 24 percent. In Brandenburg, where the AfD received 12.2 percent of the vote in 2014 and is currently polling around 22 percent, less pronounced but still sizable gains are expected.

But the most profound changes await Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The two state elections are likely to bring long-simmering tensions in the party to a head about its future direction. The moderate and conservative wings of the CDU, long at odds about a populist challenger to the right, could square off in the aftermaths of the Saxony and Brandenburg ballots. The fallout could accelerate Merkel’s departure from German politics and spell trouble for her chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

It is important to take the AfD’s polling numbers in context. The two states last held elections in 2014, when the AfD, which was founded in 2013 in the wake of the euro crisis, was still a budding, economically conservative “professor’s party” just finding its footing. Since then, the AfD has transformed from a center-right party focused on economic issues—and what it viewed as the flawed eurozone policies pushed by Merkel—to a full-fledged right-wing populist party with nationalistic views and sociocultural issues at the heart of its program.

The party’s biggest jump in popularity came in early 2016, when it strongly opposed Merkel’s migration policies and toned up its xenophobic rhetoric. This spike followed the height of the European refugee crisis in the fall of 2015 and the related anti-migrant, anti-Islam Pegida protests. The growth can also be traced to the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, perpetrated largely by migrant youths, which drove global headlines and threatened to tip public attitudes against refugees.

Since early 2016, the AfD has been a major player in the two states and the former East Germany as a whole. In the 2017 federal election, the AfD won 20.2 percent in Brandenburg, placing second, and 27 percent in Saxony, placing it first. These results mirror what is likely to happen in both states’ elections this coming weekend.

For Merkel, the real risk is not significant AfD gains in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia (another eastern state where the AfD has fared very well and which will vote on Oct. 27). These states are relatively inconsequential when it comes to the federal power politics of Germany, and the base of the CDU has always been the more populous, economically influential states of southern and western Germany.

To date, Germany’s political establishment has held firm on its commitment to ostracize and contain the AfD. The political pressure from Berlin to maintain this position is strong. But so are the pressures from constituents and state-level political realities.

Merkel’s biggest concern will be the post-election strategies the state-level CDU parties choose in what will be highly fragmented state parliaments with no easy majorities in both Saxony and Brandenburg. Leaders of the CDU in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia have publicly rebuffed the idea of a coalition with the AfD. But whether the CDU joins a coalition with other parties, or ends up in the opposition alongside the AfD, the two parties are likely to work together, at least implicitly.

That’s because, contrary to the stark differences at the federal level, the eastern state-level CDU and AfD share similar views on some issues. One area of overlap is Russia policy. Michael Kretschmer, the minister president of Saxony and a CDU politician, is an advocate of rapprochement with Russia, a view shared by many voters in the east. The AfD has had an anti-America, pro-Russia tilt since its founding that has only become more pronounced in recent years. Kretschmer also shares views with the socially conservative AfD on same-sex marriage and adoption rights.

But the biggest area of potential cooperation for the CDU and AfD is around the idea of German Leitkultur, a vague and contentious idea referring to traditional German values and norms in conservative parlance that ought to govern society. This concept can be applied to relevant societal questions: What is the relationship between assimilation and integration? What role should the government play in this? What is German culture? And what does it mean to be German?

The state-level CDU in the east is between a rock and a hard place, bleeding conservative voters on its right to an established AfD, which is learning how to play the parliamentary game, and mainstream supporters on its left to the surging Greens, which is primed to at least double its 2014 numbers next month in Saxony and Brandenburg (where there is also a historically strong and competent state-level Social Democratic Party). Cooperating with the AfD could help to reclaim anti-Merkel defectors in the medium term. But would it be enough to offset the inevitable exodus of centrist voters? CDU members in Dresden, Potsdam, and Erfurt have undoubtedly weighed this scenario behind closed doors.

The eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, neighbor to Brandenburg and Saxony, does not vote until 2021. Nevertheless, it is an important piece of the puzzle. CDU members there have openly flirted with the possibility of a coalition with the AfD, saying they will assess the situation and emphasizing the AfD has “liberal forces” in addition to radical elements.

The wheels of cooperation have already begun to turn at the local municipal level, both in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which does not vote until 2021, and in Thuringia.

Questions about the end of the road for Merkel will undoubtedly reemerge after the Sept. 1 state elections, whether out of sensationalism or wishful thinking. But the results alone will do little to impact her standing as chancellor. She and the CDU establishment have known this was coming. At the same time, her position within the CDU looks less tenuous than even eight months ago, as her approval ratings have stabilized around 55 percent. Meanwhile, her supposed successor, Kramp-Karrenbauer, has wasted away her initial popularity with a series of gaffes, raising doubts among some in the CDU about her viability as a candidate for chancellor. Other Merkel critics, especially the two leadership contestants whom Kramp-Karrenbauer defeated, Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, are down but not out. Unable to mobilize a significant power base within the CDU to date, the situation in eastern Germany this fall could present a window of opportunity for them.

Merkel’s future as chancellor will therefore depend on what happens in the weeks and months after the elections in the three eastern states. Apart from a potential panic reaction by her coalition partner in Berlin, the Social Democrats, to yet another demoralizing round of election results, her biggest headache might come from lengthy and complicated coalition talks in Dresden and Potsdam. Open defiance of Merkel by the state parties could push her to a point we have yet to see in her long tenure and could be the first domino to fall in ushering in a new era of CDU leadership.

Jörn Fleck is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.

Alex Pieter Baker is a project assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.

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