Over the weekend, elections were held in two German states—Brandenburg and Saxony. Alexandru Filip assesses the results, pointing out that the German political system remains in paralysis, as its political centre continues to thin.
Expectations Before the Vote
This past weekend the German political system held its breath—yet again—in expectation of the outcomes of two regional state elections, in Brandenburg and Saxony. As was the case in state elections over the past two years (especially so in Eastern Germany), the main headline in the lead-up to the vote surrounded the questions of how well the populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) would perform, and whether it would manage to win any of these elections. Brandenburg and Saxony appeared to be the ideal candidates for such a scenario to unfold. Over the past two decades, these two East German regions have lagged behind other parts of the country economically and experienced continuous emigration to other regions that led to demographic decline. Moreover, they have , following various and repeated incidents of civil disorder and organised attacks on migrants  and refugee homes . It has thus come to no surprise to many over the years that they are among the areas where the AfD is expected to perform best.
In a recent tactical moved that ‘upped the ante’, the AfD appropriated the memory of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 revolution to advertise its position—comparing their anti-establishment, Eurosceptic message to those protesting against oppression by the old East German regime—a move that many other political actors characterized as foul play. The party made use of voters’ bitterness over refugee policy, as well as socio-economic issues such as the planned closure of coal mines .
The Reality After the Vote
After the dust has settled and the votes are counted, it seems that the most feared outcome has been averted: the AfD ‘failed to win’ the election in either of the two states, where the previous winners retained their top positions. Nonetheless, it did score impressive vote tallies: 23,5 percent in Brandenburg (with the incumbent SPD, netting 26 percent) and 28 percent in Saxony (behind the, CDU’s 32 percent). In the latter case, the AfD increased its vote share by a staggering 18 percent compared to the last election, in Brandenburg by a ‘mere’ 11,3 percent. While the AfD did not win any of these elections, they still sent a strong message.
The picture may, however, be more nuanced than appears at first sight. In Brandenburg (figure 1), the incumbent SPD, as well as the other major parties following the 2014 election, the CDU and the left-wing Die Linke all lost votes. It must nevertheless be observed that the AfD was not the only party benefitting from increasing voter disapproval of the political centre (and the left). Parties such as the Greens, the United Citizens Movement and the liberal FDP all saw their fortunes improve somewhat (with the Greens having the best performance among these, increasing their vote share by 4,6 percent). The animal protection party (Tierschutzpartei) also improved their tally, although it remains below the electoral threshold of 5 percent that is required to enter state parliaments.
In Saxony (figure 2), the other parties’ performance and improvement was not as pronounced, although here, too, they managed to improve their performance slightly. Again, the Greens were the ‘best of the rest’. Increasing their vote share by 3 percent, they overtook the traditionally strong SPD (third strongest in Saxony at the previous election) and came within two points of the previous front-runner, Die Linke.
Figure 1: Change in Electoral Performance, Brandenburg.
Figure 2: Change in Electoral Performance, Saxony
What Lessons to Draw
It would seem that the message, or lesson, of the two state elections is not only that the far right is on the rise, but also that the political centre is thinning. Policy entrepreneurs across the board are profiting from the fossilisation of centre parties. Politically opposite the AfD, the most significant of these parties are the Greens, who continue to build on their strong performances in this year’s European elections, as well as in other recent regional state contests.
The fact that voters were galvanised also by the debate around the continuation of coal mines draws eerie parallels to the USA, where Donald Trump’s campaign played on his image as a saviour of the coal workers, and where the Democrats (in more recent responses) have worked on developing a so-called ‘Green New Deal’ . These are the tell-tale signs of a political landscape moving into post-materialist territory.
The consequences for the German (and European) political landscape will depend also on how the established German centre parties, SPD and CDU, react. For the social democrats, these elections have been just another episode in a string of electoral failures, as they are currently polling at historically low numbers nationally. There are ongoing demands within the party to abandon the current national governing coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU.
For the latter, a steady course with as little turmoil may be preferable. This would involve maintaining the current coalition and coasting until the next national elections in autumn 2021. For both traditional ‘Volksparteien’, a precipitous end to the coalition and failure to produce a new one—not to mention the prospects of an early election—would be an unfortunate scenario given the highs that both the AfD and the Greens are riding now.
For now, it remains unclear if the German polity should let out a sigh of relief or interpret the results as another episode in a string of quasi-victories for the AfD. Elections in Thuringia are right around the corner. Expect more of the same, as the German political system continues holding its breath.
Alexandru Filip is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Hertie School of Governance.