In an outcome sure to unnerve Germany’s more conventional politicians, a series of polls conducted in June and July has demonstrated that the anti-establishment force has moved to the fore in the former Eastern Bloc territory, where they enjoy steady public backing – all ahead of the crucial regional elections, two of which are scheduled in about a month’s time.
By contrast, the heavyweights of German politics – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – are facing what might be called a near collapse of popular support in the same eastern regions. In the latest poll conducted by the Emnid Institute, AfD picked up 23 percent of the vote in the five East German states, narrowly beating out the CDU, which received 22 percent.
All other political forces are lagging: the Left Party (Die Linke) took third place with 14 percent backing, while the Greens nipped at their heels just one percentage point behind. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats, once considered one of Germany’s “people’s parties” – or factions enjoying the broadest public support – have dropped to fifth place in the East, earning a mere 11 percent of the vote.
In the states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, where regional elections are scheduled for the coming weeks, the CDU and the SPD are facing a real risk of defeat – from contenders on both ends of the political spectrum.
In Brandenburg, a Social Democratic stronghold ever since Germany’s reunification in the 1990s, the SPD is now poised to be dethroned by AfD, while Saxony will likely see a closer race against the CDU, which faces historically low support in the region. Thuringia seems to be divided between the two niche parties, the Left and the AfD, according to the latest poll.
The more establishment-friendly politicians are still attempting to reverse the trends favoring their competitors with tried-and-true tactics of comparing them to Nazis, or accusing them of exploiting Germany’s problems. Most recently, Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU) told the German media that AfD’s rhetoric is something that “we have previously heard only from the NPD” – an openly neo-Nazi party, which the German government has repeatedly sought to ban.
Yet, these strategies no longer appear to work – and the German establishment may only have itself to blame.
Out of touch with voters
As striking as they may seem, the poll results do not guarantee the AfD’s victory in any of the German states – even in the East. It would need to form a coalition in order to govern, but so far not a single party has expressed willingness to join forces and create a ruling bloc.
Besides, the party’s support is significantly less impressive on the national level. Throughout all of Germany, the AfD enjoys only 12 percent of support, falling far behind both the CDU (27 percent), the SPD (13 percent) and even the Greens (25 percent), who have seen an almost unprecedented surge in popularity over the last year.
AfD’s success in the East, however, can hardly be explained solely by the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in that part of the country, regardless of how hard the German media works to portray the region as a hotbed of far-right extremism.
Germans in the east tend to be more concerned over migration, an issue that Merkel and other mainstream political forces have long tended to ignore, refusing to consider that the infamous “open doors” policy at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis may have been a mistake. The AfD certainly capitalizes on the regional feelings, but that alone does not explain the party’s support.