Germany recently held regional elections in three states and the outcome proved to be excellent news for Alternative for Germany (AfD). The new party won 15% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, 12.5% in Rhineland-Palatinate, and more than 24% in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Not only has the party shaken up German politics and German coalition building, it has also proved to be Merkel’s first challenge on her right flank, a new challenge for Merkel but one that many of her European counterparts know very well.
The rise of the AfD has complicated things in German politics, particularly in the formation of coalitions. The old Greens-SPD coalition in Baden-Württemberg did not get enough votes to carry on (although the Greens themselves increased their vote share and won the election), forcing the Greens and CDU to try and form a coalition themselves. Similar, uncomfortable, coalitions are sure to arise in future state elections and perhaps even at the federal level if the AfD maintains its momentum.
The party has clearly taken advantage of the backlash against Merkel’s liberal asylum policy of welcoming many refugees. Over one million made it to Germany in 2015 and tens of thousands have already done so in 2016. As opposed to some of Germany’s neighbors, Merkel welcomed the refugees and believed it was the duty of Germany to help those fleeing war-torn countries. Tensions over the subsequent influx of migrants have risen and have allowed the AfD to capitalize on opposition to the policy. The party has taken a strict stance in regards to migration that has resonated with a significant segment of the population. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, party head Frauke Petry stated that such an influx of Muslims will change the culture and that Merkel’s decision to allow in migrants went against democratic principles. Latest national polls put the party at around 13%, with a steady rise being observed over the past few months.
Besides being an outlet for voters who see the migrants as a threat to Germany, as well as those who are more eurosceptic (AfD is also a rarity – a German eurosceptic party), the rise of the party is also complicating matters for the CDU to hold on to power within the German political system. For much of post-war Germany, it has been the CDU and the SPD as the two opposing major parties. One of them would win a plurality in an election and form a government with one smaller party (FDP, Greens). Due to the country’s mixed electoral system, in which voters essentially vote twice in federal elections (once for a party list and once for a single candidate), this led to a system where Germans practiced “strategic voting” to help ensure their preferred coalition won.
However, as the coalition outcomes from these recent state elections reveal, a significant amount of support for a new party that no one wants to work with could prevent the CDU from clinching power as it lacks other partners. On the left, the SPD and the Greens both have a sustainable support base (albeit at lower levels than in previous years) and can usually work together in coalitions. But for the CDU, things have become difficult after the dramatic rise and fall of the FDP, which has nearly been wiped out of German politics in recent years. Without the FDP, the CDU is left to form a grand coalition (as seen now at the federal level) or a perhaps even more uncomfortable (although it has been done at the state level) coalition with the Greens.
Recent history in German politics shows a series of sudden rises and falls of smaller political parties. The Greens, the FDP, and the Pirate Party have all seen their support spike and then just as quickly fall back, often within just one year. Of the three, the Greens, a now long-established party in Germany, have been the only ones to maintain a significant level of support (around 10-12% nationally). Often due to internal problems or more general “growing pains” experienced by most new upstart political parties, these new parties were not able to hold on to their momentum of support and soon lost it. The CDU must be hoping that the same will happen to the AfD.
But will it? The danger of a party that relies too much on specific events (migrant crisis, EU-related issues) may see the public forget about them once these issues have been resolved, or at least when the public is no longer paying attention to them. As the EU recently struck a deal with Turkey that aims to stop the flow of migrants into Germany, will the social tensions in Germany ease? Polls have already shown support for Merkel, which experienced a dip during the height of the migrant crisis, has already slightly rebounded.
The challenge for the AfD will be to convince the public that it has a long-term policy platform and is not a one- or two-issue party. History is not on the side of the AfD, but it is unclear if future events will help or harm the party. The conflict in Syria is long from over and it is in no way certain that the deal with Turkey is actually workable and will be carried out efficiently. Meanwhile, the economy of the Eurozone has improved over the past year, but another economic crisis cannot be ruled out as many southern countries (Greece, Italy) continue to suffer from heightened levels of debt. While Merkel and the CDU may be hoping for a quick fall of the AfD as seen with other smaller parties, such a scenario is not guaranteed this time round.