Anti-AfD (Alternative for Germany/Alternative für Deutschland) flyers litter the Humboldt University buildings dispersed around Berlin. They try to dispel the narrative of the party as an “alternative” by claiming it is a “reservoir of racists and neo-Nazis”. Beyond the largely left-wing university bubble, AfD is condemned by wide swathes of society. So who in their right mind would vote for them? As it turns out, AfD seems to be stealing votes from all parties on the spectrum and is attracting voters from all social classes. This is having a significant impact on how the next German government will form in 2017.
This is already taking effect on a local level with five of Germany’s 16 states having had elections in 2016. What all of the results had in common was a decline in the establishment parties (CDU and SPD) and a rise in AfD. The public news organization, ARD, reports that in Berlin, which is typically a stronghold of the Left, AfD won 14.2 per cent. Gains were particularly large in former East Germany which is generally poorer and has higher unemployment. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, AfD won 20.8 per cent, and in Sachsen-Anhalt they raked in 24.3 per cent. Nonetheless, former West German states are also seeing growth in AfD, with 12.6 per cent in Rheinland-Pfalz and 15.1 per cent in Baden-Württemberg.
The polling organization Infratest Dimap has shown that support for the AfD is spread across all social classes.
These rather significant figures have only been achieved since 2013 when the party was founded. It was originally only supposed to be an anti-EU party, but quickly took a xenophobic turn to become the loudest voice for people’s frustration with the government’s immigration policy. The ultimate catalyst for their popularity was Merkel’s welcoming of nearly one million refugees into Germany in 2015. While Merkel was defending her policy as a humanitarian necessity and other parties were not wanting to be seen as racist, AfD condemned the refugees as the “lumpenproletariat of the Afro-Arabian world”. This appealed to an increasing number of voters who did not subscribe to the Wilkommenskultur, or ‘welcoming culture’ and were tired of what they perceived to be excessive political correctness.
Many were concerned about the danger that these predominantly young men could pose for German society. This fear was made concrete after over 1,200 sexual assaults took place on New Year’s Eve in German cities, and were primarily connected to people who had been in Germany for less than a year. As a result, AfD could provide evidence that Merkel’s policy was endangering the German people (even though hardly any of those convicted are Syrian). Additionally, there have been a number of rape accusations involving refugees in 2016 which have added fuel to the fire, despite the fact that many cases have been discredited.
Furthermore, 2015 and the first half of 2016 saw rising tensions between Germany and Turkey over the handling of the refugee crisis and a bizarre case where Erdogan sued a German comedian over a satirical poem. In addition, there was the parliamentary recognition of the Armenian genocide which resulted in Erdogan preventing German MPs from visiting troops stationed on the border to Syria. AfD led the resentment felt across the political spectrum – that Merkel was being blackmailed by the Turkish president. In the eyes of many voters, Merkel could no longer be trusted to manage Germany internally or externally and so they turned to the party that seems to be offering the only alternative.
The much older protest party, Die Linke (The Left), is suffering from internal division on how to handle key issues such as the refugee crisis which makes it unclear what a vote for them would result in. Furthermore, in a recent interview with the Magazine Der Spiegel, prominent SPD politician Thomas Oppermann argues that it is actually becoming an established party and losing its appeal to frustrated voters. As Opperman states, “those who wish to cast protest votes would rather choose the AfD”.
What is most significant about the growth in AfD popularity since the events of 2015, however, is that it cannot be reduced to the unemployed and the working classes. The polling organization Infratest Dimap has shown that support for AfD is spread across all social classes. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, no socio-demographic group voted less than 14 per cent AfD. Similarly, 11 per cent of those with higher levels of education voted for AfD in Baden-Württemberg. It has become evident that the protest party is voicing concerns that are not specific to any group. To denounce all those who have these anxieties as racists avoids having a much needed discussion that might help find a common solution.
It remains to be seen to what extent Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have empowered the AfD in their bid for next year’s federal election.
Since the summer of 2015 the arrival of refugees has sharply declined and the impact on daily life has been minimal. The media no longer has the same focus on the topic and articles now focus on the success (or lack thereof) of integration policies. Based on polls from 18 November collected by Infratest Dimap, 12 per cent of Germany will vote AfD, which is already down from 16 per cent in September of this year. So while AfD is likely to join parliament, they will almost certainly not be part of any government. In addition, Angela Merkel has just announced that she will be running again, which will prevent any CDU–AfD coalition from happening. If she fails to rebuild her lost popularity, it is far more likely that there will be a “Red-Red-Green” coalition (SPD–Die Linke–Green Party) such as the one that is currently governing Berlin.
Nonetheless, the demographic spread of AfD voters suggests that the established parties will have to put in a greater effort in order to keep moderates on their side. It remains to be seen to what extent Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have empowered AfD in their bid for next year’s federal election.