Three German states went to the polls on Sunday in elections that were seen as a test of the federal government’s handling of the refugee crisis, and particularly of the standing of prime minister Angela Merkel. Sure enough, the common theme in the results was the strong showing of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).
AfD, which was formed in 2013, has won seats in state parliaments before, but this was by far its best effort: 12.6% in Rhineland-Palatinate, 15.1% in Baden-Württemberg, and 24.2% in Saxony-Anhalt (which will make it the second-largest party there).
Its previous best had been 12.2% a year and a half ago in Brandenburg. Brandenburg, however, is in the east, so it should be compared with Saxony-Anhalt, not with the two western states. Moreover, that was before last year’s split in AfD, when the previous relatively moderate leadership departed and the party was taken over by the hard right.
So it looks as if Germany has joined its European neighbors in having a far-right, anti-immigrant party with a significant share of the vote. This is nothing out of the ordinary; most of those other parties have been around for decades. They have done well out of the last couple of years, but they hardly pose an existential threat to democracy. Germany had until now been the odd one out.
There is, of course, a reason for that: Germany’s experience in the 1930s was so traumatic that it discredited the far right more comprehensively than was the case anywhere else. Much stronger measures were put in place to ensure that no Nazi party could ever reappear.
And AfD are not Nazis. But with their lurch to the right last year, they are extreme enough to ensure that no other German party will consider them a possible coalition partner.
In the two western states that voted on Sunday, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, that’s not much of a problem. In the former, the incumbent Greens-Social Democrat coalition lost its majority (although the Greens increased their vote to become the largest party – a first for them), but will probably continue in office either by taking in the Liberals (whose vote also rose) or by accepting the support of the Christian Democrats.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, where the Social Democrats had been the senior partner with the Greens, a “traffic light” coalition (Social Democrats/Liberals/Greens, or red/yellow/green) is also a possibility. Unlike in Baden-Württemberg, however, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats still command a majority between them, so there may be a grand coalition along the lines of the current federal government.
The worrying one is Saxony-Anhalt. Although it’s a quarter of a century since reunification, the east still votes differently: there the Left party (descendants in part of the East German Communists) is strong, and there too AfD has found its most fertile ground.
On Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt far left and far right won 40.5% of the vote between them, and 41 of the 87 seats. It raises uncomfortable thoughts of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, when the Nazis and Communists together controlled a majority of the vote and were able to prevent any democratic government from being formed.
But just as AfD are not Nazis, the Left are not old-style Communists either – they are already in coalition with the Social Democrats in two other eastern states. In Saxony-Anhalt, the incumbent government is a Christian Democrat/Social Democrat grand coalition, and it is likely to continue in office, although it will now need the Greens as well for a parliamentary majority.
So what does it all mean for Merkel’s government and her stand on the refugee question? Despite the scary headlines, Merkel can probably take some satisfaction from the results. The state-level Christian Democrats, who had tried to distance themselves from her with an anti-refugee position (particularly in Rhineland-Palatinate), lost ground badly. As in Slovakia the previous week, attacking immigrants didn’t draw the sting of the extremists, rather it enabled them.
The parties to her left, who like her have been more sympathetic to the refugees, withstood the tide rather better. The Liberals gained ground in all three states (although they still fell just below the threshold in Saxony-Anhalt), raising hopes that they will be able to return to the federal parliament in next year’s election.
The refugee issue is not going away soon, and Merkel has thorny questions to deal with. But while the majority of Germans may be unhappy with the way things are playing out, they are not yet ready to let that drive them into the arms of the far right. The chancellor has some breathing space to work things through.