Germany’s governing three-party coalition under Olaf Scholz has already had a difficult time this year. But things just got significantly worse with recent state elections in Hesse and Bavaria, two of the country’s most prosperous states.
These elections really do matter. State governments control significant areas of policy and are represented in the upper house of Germany’s parliament (the Bundesrat), which has a veto on nearly 40% of legislation.
They are also a test of the political mood. It’s not uncommon for mid-term elections to go badly for incumbent governments, but these ones were especially noteworthy because of the sheer scale of the losses for Germany’s ruling parties.
The gains made by the far right are also a marker of troubling instability in a country to which many would look for clear leadership, at a time of such substantial challenges in Europe and globally, including conflict and a cost of living crisis.
The defeat for the coalition parties was comprehensive. Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) achieved the worst results in post-war German history in both states.
In Hesse, a state which historically had been one of its strongest, the SPD took just 15.1% of the vote. In Bavaria, it won just 8.4%. Scholz’ Green coalition partners lost ground in both states, and the third party, the liberal FDP, lost support in both.
This unpopularity is also reflected in dire national poll ratings. The most recent national Deutschlandtrend survey showed 79% of Germans were dissatisfied with their government.
The AfD took 14.67% of the vote in Bavaria and 18.4% in Hesse. This is significant because support for the AfD has historically been far weaker on average in these and other western states. It is more commonly known as an east German phenomenon so these latest gains are a blow to anyone who hoped the AfD was being contained there.
Meanwhile, elections will be held in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia in September 2024, with polls suggesting impressive vote shares for the AfD.
It is unlikely to win a majority of seats, but “anyone but the AfD” coalitions encompassing all parties from far left to Christian Democrat would be hard to form, hard to keep together and risk reinforcing the view the AfD puts about that mainstream parties will stop at nothing to keep it out of government.
No longer just a protest vote
As in previous state elections, the AfD made gains in Bavaria and Hesse by mobilising people who don’t usually vote. It also gained new supporters mostly from the centre right, taking votes from the Christian democratic incumbents CDU in Hesse and CSU in Bavaria, as well as from the liberal FDP.
Dissatisfaction with other parties does not entirely explain the successes of the AfD, which now draws an increasing number of voters who back the party out of “conviction”. Its supporters perceive the party as competent in the area of asylum and refugee policy in particular. In Hesse, 17% of all voters took this view.
The success of the AfD is also evidence of a further “normalisation” of the German far right. In Bavaria, 85% of AfD supporters state they do not mind that the party is considered “extreme” in parts as long as it focuses on issues that matter to them. The post-war West German taboo against voting for the far right is an increasingly distant memory.
With its electoral successes, the AfD leadership does not appear to have felt the need to give the party a more “moderate” image, in contrast to manoeuvres (however tactical or insincere) by far-right parties in Italy and France.
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In fact, since being founded in 2013, it has steadily moved from its origins as a liberal-conservative “anti-Euro” party to the radical right. Some AfD candidates for next year’s European elections have publicly defended the extreme-right “identitarian movement” and some members spread tropes associated with conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement”. Certain party representatives are even monitored by the German internal intelligence services.
The relative strength of eastern state parties in the AfD’s national organisation (notably the Thuringian branch, led by the outlandish Björn Höcke) makes any course of moderation even less likely. This may keep the AfD from national or state government, but the strong showing in Hesse and Bavaria is evidence of a further entrenchment of the far right in German politics.
The immediate consequences of these recent state elections are already in evidence. Scholz and his government are looking to tighten immigration policy, currently considered by 44% of German voters to be the country’s “biggest political problem”, way ahead of environmental and climate issues (18%) and the cost of living (13%). This has the potential to be a political headache for Green party government ministers, going against the instincts of many party members.
And with European elections coming next June, the prospect of another mauling will only heighten the sense of chaos and bickering amongst the national government’s coalition parties. Members of each will demand leaderships differentiate themselves from their coalition allies even more clearly in the hope of fending off the challengers.
This vicious circle could lead the AfD to even stronger results in the European election (they took 11% of the vote last time) – and future elections beyond.