Making sense of the far-right vote in Germany

October 25, 2019
Anti-racism march in Germany. Photo: Stand Up Against Racism

In recent elections in two East German states on September 1, the vote for the far right was the highest yet.

Far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), received 27.5% of the vote in Saxony and 23.5% in Brandenburg. State elections are coming up in the eastern state of Thuringia and the AfD is expected to gain around 25% of the vote.

The AfD was founded at the beginning of 2013 with an anti-Euro focus. By September 2013 its membership reached 17,700, but in elections that year, the party failed to gain the minimum of 5% votes required to enter Federal Parliament.

The electoral success of the party in the first three years was significant but moderate. The 2014 European elections resulted in 7.1% of the vote for the AfD. In state elections in 2015, the AfD won 10.6% of the vote in Turingia and its highest vote was 6.1% in the western states.

A turning point for the AfD was its 2015 National Congress, when the neoliberal wing of the party lost to the national-conservative and far-right wing.

Key party figures, including its founding member, from the neoliberal spectrum, left the party. Since then, the AfD has been ascending dramatically, with a more confrontational and explicitly racist, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The AfD’s support has been consistently upward, however uneven, between western and eastern German states.

In a majority of western states, its results have been around the 6% mark, but have reached as high as 10–15%.

This is in contrast to the eastern states where its results have been 20–27%.

In the September 2017 federal election, the party won 12.6% of the vote and now has a membership of more than 37,000.

The often suggested, but incorrect, explanation for the AfD’s rise is that it is a protest vote against the establishment. A recent study of the 2019 Saxony election voting behaviour found that this is only true for less than a quarter of voters.

The study found that three-quarters of people who vote for the AfD, do so because of its program and political messages.

A staggering 99% support the party wanting to limit numbers of migrants and refugees and 88% believe it to be good that the AfD is opposed to mainstream climate action proposals.

Also noteworthy, is another demographic study conducted on the 2019 Brandenburg state elections, which showed that the vast majority of AfD voters are in the 25–59 year age bracket.

The age of AfD voters is best understood by considering the key factors contributing to the party's success. Their vote is driven by fear. Fear of insecure economic times and the risk of loss. Fear of losing jobs and income and the inability to pay off a mortgage.

The consequences of loss are higher for this cohort of voters than for young people, who might not yet have committed themselves to family, employment and housing, or for older people who have less to lose in this respect.

The difference between eastern and western Germany is explained by the structural differences in economic development, making the risk of economic loss substantially higher in the east.

There are notably more small towns and villages in the east than in the west with no shops, little public transport, no hospitals, no police stations or courts.

There are less employment opportunities in general and secure employment in particular in the eastern states than in the west.

This is exacerbated by decreasing population sizes in regional areas. The flight away from regional areas has been experienced across all of the former East Germany since reunification in 1989. For the past 30 years educated people have left the east as well as a higher number of young women, often leaving behind a surplus of frustrated and angry men.

All this contributes to a higher than average support for the AfD in these areas.

In addition, around 10–20% of the German population shares a latent far-right ideology and the AfD has been highly successful in servicing this section of the populace, by normalising racism and hate speech.

A study released in February this year compared the votes for the AfD in 2017 and the votes for Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) in March 1933, across all 11,000 voting districts in Germany. (Hitler was appointed Chancellor two months prior.)

The findings established a correlation of districts with a higher than average vote for the AfD and NSDAP.

It was also found that prior to voting for the NSDAP, these identified districts had a higher level of non-voters just as the same districts had an increase in election participation in 2017 while the election participation in the rest of Germany declined.

This latent, far-right ideology has had its most recent awakening since late 2014 with the beginning of PEGIDA mobilisations (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident).

These mobilisations may have started with a few hundred participants, but at their height mobilised tens of thousands of people to march against refugees, migrants and Muslims.

Nonetheless, it was the politics of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party that has paved the way for racism to be used for political interests since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

AfD’s success is built on these developments.

The AfD has gained great confidence based on their electoral results, with a strengthening of its far-right wing, actually referred to as “the wing” (der Flügel).

Their list of candidates for the upcoming Thuringia election on October 27 is headed by Björn Höcke, one of their most extreme far-right members and head of “the wing”.

Thuringia is also the state where the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was based. It conducted a killing spree against migrants for more than a decade. It is also the place where these crimes were not fully solved, amidst criticism of the investigation at high levels for a lack of professionalism and pro far-right bias (watch the Netflix miniseries, NSU German History X for a general impression).

[Links between the AfD, public servants and intelligence personnel, as well as the rise in far-right terrorist attacks will be explored in a future article.]

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