Hallo aus Berlin,
Sunday’s elections in both Brandenburg and Saxony brought surprise results, with the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) becoming the second most popular party in each east German state.
Contrary to popular belief, we look at how it was actually young voters who helped propel them to victory – and older voters who stopped them from becoming the most powerful party by casting their ballot for mainstream parties.
The outcome of Sunday’s regional polls in the ex-communist states of Saxony and Brandenburg showed that especially voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s backed radical protest party the Alternative for Germany.
In a shock result, they propelled the nationalist, anti-immigration AfD to become the second-strongest party in both states.
Those who were young or not yet born when the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago proved most receptive to the AfD’s appeal to lingering resentment in the eastern region that still lags the west in jobs and wealth but also services such as mobile phone coverage.
If the AfD narrowly missed out on outright victories, especially in Brandenburg, it was in large part thanks to the shrinking demographic of pensioners who stayed loyal to the big-tent parties.
“Senior citizens rescue the established parties,” judged news weekly Der Spiegel, pointing to elderly people’s support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Berlin daily Tagesspiegel wrote about the AfD that “it’s by no means the old white men who have helped the party cause an electoral earthquake in the east”.
The newspaper pointed out that, in Brandenburg state which surrounds the capital, the AfD did best among the 25 to 34-year-olds, citing an analysis by pollsters Infratest dimap
“This poses very special questions for the future of democracy.”
As in many other democracies, Germany’s political landscape has fragmented into ever more smaller parties, making it harder to achieve stable governing coalitions.
The rise of the AfD, formed as a small eurosceptic force six years ago, has come in opposition to, and at the expense of, the CDU and SPD which for decades dominated post-war German politics, and which now rule the country in a fragile coalition.
The populist party has railed loudly against the “Merkel regime” but, more broadly, against institutions, parties and media outlets it regards as forming an elitist and remote establishment.
Sunday night showed how much has changed in Germany, where collective shame over the country’s war-time past had long helped consign openly xenophobic forces to the sidelines of politics.
Even though the AfD, which has known right-wing extremists in its ranks, won between one fifth and one quarter of votes, the CDU and SPD breathed an audible sign of relief for having scraped to wafer-thin victories.
Despite the CDU’s heavy losses in the state it has ruled ever since Germany’s 1990 reunification, Saxony state premier Michael Kretschmer insisted that “the friendly face of Saxony has triumphed”.
Voter data showed whom he had to thank for dodging the bullet of electoral defeat: the CDU scored 38 percent among voters in their 60s, and 45 percent among those over 70 — by far their best results.
If the trend continues, it raises troubling questions for the big parties in a fast greying country — and threatens to further shake up what was long Germany’s consensus-driven, slightly dull political culture.
The outcome Sunday “is a stark reminder that Germany’s ‘people parties’ have essentially turned into old people’s parties in large parts of Germany,” said Michael Broening of think-tank the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation.
“For political movements trying to look ahead, this poses a tremendous challenge.”
Top-selling daily Bild voiced concern that one third of Eastern voters supported either the AfD or the far-left Die Linke, both parties which were unable or unwilling “to distance themselves from the 20th century’s tyrannical regimes”.
“The AfD may be led by deplorable right-wing extremists, but it is also a party that attracts the vote of the frustrated, the angry, the disappointed — just like Die Linke,” the newspaper argued.
“So once again the warning to the (once) mainstream parties is that you ignore people’s concerns at your peril.”
In future, the AfD may not stay primarily an eastern German phenomenon, warned Jürgen Falter of Mainz University.
“If the economic situation worsens and unemployment rises,” he said, “then the AfD could benefit from it as much throughout the country as it does in Saxony and Brandenburg.”
Björn Höcke, chairman of the AfD in Thuringia, celebrating the result in Werder, Brandenburg. Photo: DPAGermany’s far-right AfD party surged to new strengths in elections for two eastern states on Sunday, exit polls said, reflecting anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migrant policy and a wealth gap 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
The Alternative for Germany became the second-strongest party in regional parliaments in both Saxony and Brandenburg, the state which surrounds the capital Berlin, according to final results..
In Saxony, where the radical anti-Islam Pegida street movement was born, the AfD scored 27.5 percent, up sharply from 9.7 percent five years ago, broadcasters ARD and ZDF forecast.
And it won between 23.5 percent in Brandenburg state, compared to 12.2 percent in 2014, said the initial projections.
The outright winners in Saxony were Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who scored 32 to 33 percent. In 2014 the party won about 40 percent of the vote.
Michael Kretschmer, state premier of Saxony, and his partner Annett Hofmann at the CDU election party in Dresden. Photo: DPA
Brandenburg was held by the Social Democrats (SPD), who came first with just over 27 percent, down from 31.9 percent in the previous election in 2014.
AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland said “we are satisfied in Brandenburg as well as in Saxony” where his party had “punished” Merkel’s conservatives.
He conceded that “yes, we are not yet the strongest force… We are working on it.”
Though broadly anticipated in pre-election surveys, the outcome delivered another slap to the fragile coalition government of Merkel’s CDU and their junior partners the SPD.
‘We are the people’
Aside from railing against asylum-seekers and Islam, the AfD has protested against plans to shutter coal mines to protect the climate and capitalized on resentment about perceived injustices since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Let’s complete the change”, it had vowed in the campaign, referring to the peaceful revolution that ended the one-party state and in 1990 brought national reunification.
Voter turnout was high as the tense political atmosphere mobilised both AfD supporters and their opponents.
All other parties had declared before the vote that they would not cooperate with the AfD, forcing the mainstream groups into new coalitions to achieve governing majorities.
The SPD celebrates in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA
The AfD has long co-opted the former pro-democracy chant “We are the people” and turned it against what it labels the “Merkel regime”.
Eastern Germany is home to several of the AfD’s most extremist leaders, among them Björn Höcke, who has labelled Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame”.
His close ally, former paratrooper Andreas Kalbitz, 46, who has had deep ties to right-wing extremist groups, was the top candidate in Brandenburg.
Der Spiegel weekly has reported that in 2007 Kalbitz joined known German neo-Nazis on a visit to Athens that came to police attention when a swastika flag was flown from a hotel balcony.
Kalbitz confirmed to the magazine that he joined the trip but insisted that the event “was not conducive to arousing my further interest or approval”.
The AfD, formed initially as a eurosceptic group, now focuses mainly on fear and anger over Germany’s mass migrant influx since 2015.
Merkel, who also grew up in the east, had avoided campaigning on the ground ahead of Sunday’s polls in the region, where she has in the past faced harsh abuse.
The veteran leader has already pledged to step down when her current term ends in 2021, but regional election upsets could speed up her government’s demise.
A third election will be held on October 27 in the eastern state of Thuringia.
Poor results for the SPD, already demoralized by a string of election defeats, were expected to again boost internal critics who want the party to leave Merkel’s government quickly.
Meanwhile, the Green party, which has never been strong in the east of Germany, made gains, reaching about 9 percent in Saxony – plus 3.3 points – and around 10 percent in Brandenburg (a gain of 3.8 points).
All parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD.