Last week, Alternative Für Deutschland (AfD), a populist right party in Germany swept to its largest share of the vote since its formation in 2013. Overnight it became the third biggest party in Germany, behind the political behemoths of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and Martin Schultz’s Social Democratic Party (SDP). When the votes cast for the far-left party Die Linke are included, more than one-in-ﬁve Germans voted for anti-establishment parties.
The AfD was founded in 2013, initially running on a platform of soft-euroscepticism and social conservatism. It won 4.7% of the vote in the ﬁrst round of federal elections it contested, just below the threshold of 5% required in the German electoral system before the party can take up any seats. As the inﬂux of refugees and migrants into Europe soared around 2015, the far-right, anti-immigration, Islamophobic faction of the party gained dominance. Presently, just four years after its founding, the AfD has nearly tripled their share of the vote, gaining a staggering 12.6% of votes, which entitles them to 94 seats in the Bundestag (the German Parliament).
As with so many of the political upheavals the world has experienced in recent years, the success of the AfD is, at least in part, the story of the ‘left-behinds’. Undoubtedly some of the AfD’s votes came from those who were dissatisﬁed with the persistent centrism of the CDU, and others from a small core of dedicated extremists.
However, a breakdown of where the AfD won its votes reveals that those in what was once known as East Germany voted far more in favour of the AfD. As the AfD ran on a platform centred around anti-immigration rhetoric, one may assume that voters were motivated by an opposition to the inﬂux of migrants and refugees, however, the AfD made its biggest gains in parts of eastern Germany least aﬀected by immigration.
This trend echoes the 2016 Brexit vote, where areas of the UK with the smallest proportion of immigrants generally voted most in favour of leaving the EU, widely regarded as a protest against immigration. The roots of this phenomenon run far deeper than simply the legacy of the European migrant crisis. To fully understand the context of the AfD’s surge in support, and the apparent east/west divide, we must trace it back almost three decades, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The process of German reuniﬁcation between East and West Germany was never going to be easy. Melding two countries, which had developed for 45 years under two diametrically opposed ideological and economic systems under consistently hostile conditions, may having justiﬁably seemed an impossible task.
In 1990 there was a vast discrepancy between the economies of East and West Germany. In the years following, €1.6 trillion ﬂowed into the east, encouraging economic development. But according to the German bank KfW, it was only in 2014 that the economic disparity between eastern and western Germany reﬂected regional diﬀerences in other developed nations such as Canada or Japan. Yet in the same year, living standards in the east were estimated to be one-third below the levels experienced in the west.
As with many of those British voters who chose to leave the European Union, or American voters who sent Donald Trump to the Oval Oﬃce, the feeling that they have been left behind by the advances and developments made by society in recent years was signiﬁcant in propelling the rise of the AfD. Eckhard Jesse, a German political scientist, explained the disproportionate popularity of the AfD in the east by the feelings of insecurity among eastern German voters – ‘after more than 25 years of reuniﬁcation, they [still] feel like second-class citizens’.
In 2009, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre revealed that two-thirds of those in the east thought that East Germany had been ‘overwhelmed’ by West Germany, compared to just 38% of West Germans. This points to deep divisions in the perspectives between two halves of the country, and thus oﬀers an explanation to the root causes of the rise of the AfD in eastern Germany.
It is not only economic inequality which has driven the rise of the AfD. 27% of voters in Saxony voted for the AfD and, far from struggling, Saxony’s GDP grew by 2.6% last year – more than any other German state. According to Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University, thousands of people in eastern Germany have felt left behind socially and politically, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is a sense that, despite the levels of investment poured into the east, it is not put to the right places – locals in the town of Görlitz feel that the investment has been used to create an expensive façade, while underlying problems such as homelessness persist. This feeling is underscored by a sense of under-representation – just 25% of local company bosses and 13% of 13% of judges in the east are people who were born and raised in the region.
Iris Gleike, a Social Democratic special representative for eastern Germany, says that this creates a sense of insecurity for those in the east, leading to a fear that the lives they have built may once again be upturned. The lack of representation, and feeling that their problems are not addressed gives rise to a feeling that the political establishment has distanced itself from them.
To compound this, some now feel that there has been a ‘thinning-out’ of local infrastructure – there are some places in eastern Germany where you now have to travel 60km to access basic government administration.
This, then, points to an explanation of why the AfD has risen to such prominence, reﬂecting the wider political forces which have driven so many of the upheavals in recent years. The roots of the social and political divisions between east and west lie in the legacy of the Berlin Wall, and the failure of the government to fully heal these divisions.
Germany’s political landscape has been pushed to the extremes by those who feel that power still lies in the hands of west Germans. The success of the AfD shows that the tide of anti-establishment populism has not turned, despite what the recent successes of ﬁgures such Emanuel Macron may have seemed to suggest. In order to combat the rise of the far-right, we must seek an ambitious programme for change, which leaves no-one behind.