Progressive Futures

One year on: Germany’s far right

14 September 2018

A years since the general election in Germany, what are the polls telling us about the rise of the far right?

Penny Bochum

There has been criticism about how some sections of the media reported the Swedish election, in which the nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats, won nearly 18% of the vote, up from 12.9%.  It is argued that over-reporting of right wing gains over-estimate problems and exaggerate the power of the populist parties.

Similar criticisms have been raised in the past about the reporting of the rise of the right wing populist the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, particularly when reports have linked the party’s rise to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s.

So when we look at the polls in Germany, what are we to make of them?

One year after the September 2017 general election, national polls in Germany  show a splintering in the vote share.  The 40% traditionally won by both the CDU/CSU and the SPD is a distant memory.

Angela Merkel’s CDU is polling at around 29-30% (down about 3% since last September’s federal election) and the SPD at around 18% (down from a historic low of 20.5% in the 2017 poll).

The AfD, which was only formed in 2013, and which won 12.6% in 2017 to become the third largest party in Germany, is now polling at around 16-17% nationally.  An INSA poll published on 11th September  has even put the AfD in second place nationally, on 17.5%, with the SPD just behind on 17%.

The Greens have also experienced a surge in support recently, to around 15%. One of its new leaders, Robert Habeck, has declared the party’s intention to overtake the SPD as the strongest party on the left of the political spectrum.  The Liberals (FDP) and the Left party votes are holding steady at around 9 -10%.

The rise in support for the AfD must clearly be seen in the context of the more diverse political landscape that now exists in 2018.  So while support for AfD is increasing, so is support for the Greens.

It must also be seen in the context of what is happening throughout Europe, including in the UK, rather than isolating the German experience  to write a  ‘history repeating itself’ narrative.

And yet, when the CDU/CSU Union is straining over the issue of immigration, as it did over the summer; when the once-mighty SPD struggles along at under 20%;  when there are Nazi salutes and chants, and mob attacks on foreigners on the streets of Chemnitz and  Köthen, it’s time to worry.   Especially if you live in the east of the country.

In the five eastern states, polls consistently show much stronger support  for AfD,  and even lower support for the SPD, than the national polls.   For example, a poll published by Infratest Dimap on  6th September put the AfD in top place in east Germany with 27% of the vote share . The CDU came second with 23%, the Left party in third place with 18% and the SPD in fourth place with 15%.

This poll is not an aberration. Other polls have consistently put the AfD as strong challengers to the CDU in eastern Germany.   In the election last year,  the party came second,  winning nearly 22% of the vote in the east (with the SPD in  fourth place, with just under 14%) , coming first in the state of Saxony.

There is, of course, strong opposition in Germany to the rise of the AfD and to the anti-foreigner violence, both nationally and in the east. Many easterners are concerned to show the open, democratic east rather than the anti-foreigner narrative that is being widely reported.  Counter-demonstrations and social media campaigns have begun, with, for example, the hashtag  #theothereast trending.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to equate all AfD voters with Nazis.  The unrest in some eastern towns has been hijacked by extremist elements.  AfD voters are part of a European trend  that reflects a crisis of faith in the political establishment. The AfD gained nearly one and a half million voters who had never voted before last September, and a report by the Hans-Böckler Foundation has described a pervasive fear of social decline among AfD voters from across all social classes.

But the rise of the AfD is arguably, as some commentators have pointed out, a test of democracy in Germany.   Many worry that the party is anti-constitutional.  Politicians have called for it to be subject to surveillance by the security agency, the head of which is already embroiled in a controversy for allegedly having too close a relationship with the party.  There are fears that the AfD is becoming increasingly radical and that the internal power struggle within the party will result in an extremist victory which could challenge the stability of this successful post-war democracy.   In a debate in the Bundestag on 12th September, Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in the 2017 election, made an impassioned and widely reported speech in which he likened the methods and rhetoric  of the AfD to those of fascism.  “It is time,” he said, “for democrats in this country to stand up and defend democracy.”

While some applauded Schulz’s fighting talk, others were concerned that some of his comments could only further alienate AfD supporters, when the aim should be to bring them back into the fold.  A year after the last federal election, there is still little political consensus in Germany as to the most effective response to the rise in support for the AfD.