There’s been a thriving debate over the last year or so on whether (and to what extent) the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to the fortunes of far-right politics – or, as the media love to call it, “populism”. The jury is still out, but a state election in Germany yesterday provided a highly encouraging data point.
The previous election in Saxony-Anhalt was in April 2016. Reporting on it at the time, I said this:
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.
I went on to point out that neither extreme – Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the right and the Left party on the left – was as dangerous as its 1930s counterpart, but that the situation was worrying nonetheless. It became even more worrying in October 2019, when in neighboring Thuringia the two of them won a majority between them, with 54.4% of the vote, provoking an extended political crisis.
So all eyes were on Saxony-Anhalt this year, not just for its intrinsic interest but also as the last state election to be held before the German federal election scheduled for September. The previous two state elections, in March in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, had seen poor results for the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU); another failure yesterday would have been a bad sign for their chances of holding onto the top job at federal level.
Instead, however, the CDU had a very good day indeed. Its vote rose by 7.4 points to 37.1%; instead of a narrow lead over AfD, as the polls had suggested, it was a crushing one: the far right remained in second place, but dropped 3.4 points to 20.8%. The Left fell even more sharply, losing almost a third of its votes, down 5.3 to 11.0%. (Official results here; “Zweitstimmen”, or second votes, are the ones that matter.)
Bringing up the rear were the other three mainstream parties, of which only the Liberals (FDP) had much to celebrate – having fallen just below the 5% threshold last time, they made it comfortably with 6.4% (up 1.6%). The Social Democrats (SPD), already in trouble, fell even further to 8.4% (down 2.2%), while the Greens, who in most of the country seem to be on a roll, recorded only a modest gain, up 0.8 points to 5.9%.
The CDU won all but one of the 41 constituency seats, creating a large “overhang”: more list seats have to be added to preserve overall proportionality. So of the total 97 seats (up ten), the CDU will have 40 (up ten), AfD 23 (down two), Left 12 (down four), SPD nine (down two), FDP seven (up seven) and Greens six (up one).
In the previous parliament, CDU, SPD and Greens needed to combine to reach a majority. This time CDU and SPD will have a majority on their own, although only by one seat. They could dispense with the Greens, but that might not be politically smart if the CDU is hoping to win Green support at federal level. Alternatively, the CDU could govern with the FDP and Greens, leaving the SPD in opposition: that could well be doing it a favor, since coalition with the CDU seems to harm it electorally.
Saxony-Anhalt’s switch from left to right is quite striking. In the 1990s, the three left-of-centre parties (SPD, Left and Greens) had almost 60% of the vote between them; as recently as 2011 they were still over 50%. Yesterday that total was down to 25.3%. In much of the country, the SPD’s decline seems to be just a reshuffling of the vote within the centre-left, with the Greens gaining by an equivalent amount or more, but something else is clearly going on in Saxony-Anhalt.
Whether it has national implications is less clear. There’s a consensus that the CDU’s success is mostly a vote of confidence in its state leader, premier Reiner Haseloff; an exit poll reported at ZDF found him with an approval rating of 82%, including 66% even among AfD voters.
One other result from the exit poll struck me as worthy of note (the whole thing is well worth a look if you’ve got some basic German). A question asked for opinions of Haseloff’s refusal to entertain a coalition with AfD. AfD’s own supporters, of course, disagreed, while the rest were strongly supportive, but the next lowest level of support came from FDP voters: only 66%, as against 91% CDU and 96% Greens.
It’s only one poll, but that’s a worrying sign that under pressure of the pandemic, some Liberals may have let their civil libertarian views deceive them into thinking they have some common ground with the far right. And that’s a concern that may well have implications beyond Germany.