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Why is far-right populism becoming more popular in Germany?

July 2, 2023

The Alternative for Germany is finding support from new voters, and has now won two local elections in a week. Why?

An election poster showing the AfD's Hannes Loth
The AfD's Hannes Loth is the new mayor of Raguhn-JessnitzImage: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture alliance

German politicians and media are once again fretting about the rise of far-right populism in the country, after two local runoff votes in eastern Germany were won by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country's most successful far-right party since World War II.

On Sunday evening, the AfD's Hannes Loth beat independent candidate Nils Naumann in the small town of Raguhn-Jessnitz, Saxony-Anhalt, to become the AfD's first ever mayor in Germany. This came a week after the AfD's Robert Sesselmann won a similar runoff in the district of   Sonneberg, Thuringia.

Though the two districts are relatively small, the results are considered significant because they confirm a trend in national polls: The far-right party can now claim the approval of 20% of German voters, the same as Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democrats.

But few political analysts can agree on why. Some have argued that recent infighting in the government, particularly over climate protection laws, has not been helpful. "The politics of the coalition government are unsettling people," said Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing Academy for Political Education in Bavaria. "And I think people who were also dissatisfied by politics in general are now getting mobilized more and more by the AfD."

CDU leader Friedrich Merz
CDU leader Friedrich Merz has often been criticized for slipping into populist rhetoric himselfImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

A study released this week by Leipzig University suggests a simpler, though more disturbing, explanation: Many German voters, particularly in the east of the country,  hold racist views.

Equally alarming were the results of another survey, released on June 29, which found that the AfD's populist sentiment is gaining more support among middle-class Germans. The ongoing study, by the Sinus Institute for Social Research, found that the middle-class segment of the AfD's voters has grown from 43% two years ago to 56% now.

Not only that, there are signs that the AfD's voter base is broadening. The survey found that AfD voters in this segment are not just what Sinus calls the "conservative and nostalgic" middle classes, but also the "adaptive-pragmatic" middle classes — in other words, people who switch their political allegiances according to current issues.

"What we're currently seeing is the younger, more modern middle-classes, who are actually more well-educated, are also showing an affinity to the AfD," Silke Borgstedt, director of the Sinus Institute, told DW. "Though we can't say yet whether that's because the other parties don't put together the appropriate program, or whether it's a conscious decision."

How populist do politicians need to be?

Chancellor Scholz insists the AfD's rise has nothing to do with any troubles in his government, but the party that arguably faces the biggest dilemma is the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which, despite leading in the polls, is struggling to profit from the wrangling of the coalition government.

Why the AfD is surging in polls

CDU leader Friedrich Merz has been forced to retreat from his promise, made in 2019, that he would halve the AfD's voter base, but his rhetoric has remained stubbornly more anti-left than anti-right throughout his leadership. Even after the AfD's recent successes, he declared earlier this week that the Greens remain the CDU's "main opponent," despite the fact that the CDU is in coalition with the environmentalist party in six of Germany's 16 state governments.

Ursula Münch isn't sure whether simply lashing out at the Greens is the CDU's best approach, but she thinks the last thing mainstream parties should do is build a "firewall" to the far right by refusing to address certain issues, like immigration. "I do think it's important that these parties try to compete on policy with the AfD," she told DW. "They shouldn't just retreat and say: That's a far-right party, we don't want to have anything to do with them."

Temptations of populism

Germany's conservative politicians are divided on what line to take: Some have shunned emotive rhetoric in favor of trying to present themselves as a responsible party that belongs in government, while others have found considerable success. Hubert Aiwanger, head of the populist right-wing (but not far-right) Freie Wähler (Free Voters) party in the wealthy southern state of Bavaria, is a notable example.

As Bavaria's economy minister and leader of the minority partner in the state government with the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), Aiwanger recently caused a furor when he told a crowd demonstrating against the federal government's climate policies: "Now the point has arrived when the great silent majority of this country must take back democracy."

Hubert Aiwanger speaks into a microphone
Hubert Aiwanger, head of the Free Voters, is particularly popular in rural areas of BavariaImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

This triggered demands for his resignation, but Aiwanger insisted his speech was a defense of the democratic center ground. "If it wasn't for me, this country would be even more polarized," he told Die Zeit newspaper, pointing out that the Bavarian AfD could only claim 10% in opinion polls — half the national average.

A threat to democracy?

What is particularly concerning for many is that so many German voters appear to be undeterred not only by the AfD's often overt racism, but also by the fact that the party is under surveillance as a potential threat to the country's constitutional order: The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the German domestic intelligence agency that tracks extremists, has classified certain parts of the AfD as far-right extremist, and the AfD as a whole as a "suspicious case."

But according to Münch, a lot of Germans — especially but not only in eastern Germany — maintain a critical attitude toward the intelligence agency. At a recent press conference, BfV President Thomas Haldenwang seemed to suggest Germans should think twice before voting AfD. "That is not the BfV's job," chided Münch. "In the eyes of AfD voters, positions like that delegitimize the BfV — especially in eastern Germany. They say: Well, we've had enough experience with the Stasi [secret service of the communist East German regime 1949-1990], we won't let anyone prescribe to us what is right and wrong."

But could it just be that the AfD is in vogue right now? Silke Borgstedt of Sinus is confident that, despite the current numbers, mainstream German parties needn't panic just yet.

"There is a far-right base, and then there is a section of voters who are very strongly influenced by current moods and react to it," she said. And the mood may swing before the next general election in 2025.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight