Today’s papers are full of the news that the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a new Eurosceptic political party, has stormed to unprecedented success in yesterday’s three state elections.
It certainly turned in the strongest performance by the populist right in Germany’s post-war history: it broke the threshold to gain seats in all three states, and took 13 and 15 per cent in the two Western states, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. In Saxony-Anhalt, in the former East where the far right has recently fared better, they took 24 per cent of the vote.
What these results mean for Angela Merkel, and Germany, is less clear-cut.
AfD’s success is a clear rebuke to the Chancellor’s liberal migration policy, and it’s recent renaissance is a troubling development for German democracy. As Fraser Nelson outlines in the Spectator, the AfD is no longer the rather dry, Eurosceptic party it was founded as: its founders have been ousted and it now adopts a strident, even sinister anti-migrant stance.
(The spirit of the old AfD perhaps now resides in the Alliance for Progress and Renewal (ALFA), which split from the party in July.)
In one sense, the rise of the AfD could be seen as the normalisation of German politics: the party lacks the neo-Nazi associations of previous right-populist insurgencies such as the National Democrats (who previously enjoyed some state-level success), allowing German voters to back it in a pattern similar to that of other European democracies.
But whilst Merkel may have turbo-charged the hard right, there appears to have been an opposing push in favour of admitting refugees: as the Guardian points out, several strident defenders of Merkel’s policies did well yesterday whilst her internal critics, such as Rhineland-Palatinate CDU leader Julia Klöckner, fared poorly.
Klöckner’s failure to oust the Social Democrats, which she had seemed set to do, apparently leaves the Chancellor without a credible leadership rival before the federal election in 2017. Thus whilst the results may auger great difficulties for her party in the years ahead, they may not be so catastrophic for Merkel personally.
Her Christian Democrats seem to be falling between two stools: the rise of the AfD gives conservative, Eurosceptic voters a plausible alternative whilst attempts to shore up that flank sees the CDU shedding liberal voters to parties like the centrist Greens, who topped the poll in Baden-Württemberg.
That both the Greens and AfD did well yesterday might be testament to the perils of grand coalitions: the CDU share power in Berlin with the SPD, the primary party of the centre left, after Merkel went all-in for a majority in 2013 and ended up squeezing both the AfD and the liberal FDP out of the Bundestag, denying herself any centre-right coalition partners.
If the polarisation of German politics suggested by these results continues, it could prove very tricky for a broad-church conservative party like the CDU. If Merkel’s government sticks to its liberal guns, and remains dependent on the left, it could cede ever more political terrain to the radical right. But if it tries to pivot right it could suffer further setbacks against the centre-left.
The Chancellor has been in office since 2005. When she eventually steps down, she will have bequeathed a challenge to her successor which has been much discussed in Britain: how best to navigate a split on the right?