The East is different: this is one of the defining truisms of German politics. In 2019, this will be put to the test, as three of the six federal states of former communist East Germany hold regional parliamentary elections.
In all three states – Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg – the political landscape has changed rapidly in recent years, above all because of the rise of the Alternative for Germany, a right-wing, anti-immigration party founded in 2013.
Polls show the AfD competing for the lead in all three states. For now, other political parties refuse to contemplate a coalition with the newcomer. But the AfD’s strength may be able to cause systemic disruption, preventing the formation of stable governments. It may also push mainstream parties to adopt a stricter tone against immigration.
Some leading German economists see developments in the former communist states as a risk to business activity. Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, told Handelsblatt that the continued success of the AfD could hobble democratic institutions and reduce the willingness to reach compromises. “This loss of democratic ability to act would weaken states' ability to attract businesses,” Hüther said.
After last year’s state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, the AfD has been represented in all sixteen of Germany’s state parliaments. The party has no real power, because it is not part of any regional government. In the three Eastern states, the AfD is unlikely to rule even after expected electoral gains in September and October.
Ever since its inception, the AfD has been strongest in the East, helped by higher rates of poverty and unemployment, an aging population, and less exposure to immigrants during the communist era. In East Germany, it seems to have moved decisively beyond the protest-vote stage, with its solid core support now voting out of conviction as much as frustration.
In recent years, the Eastern states have seen regular outbreaks of violent xenophobia. Last September, the city of Chemnitz in Saxony drew international headlines when a stabbing incident escalated into large-scale anti-immigrant demonstrations.
For the AfD, the current strategy seems to be to sit tight, keep its distance from the political establishment and soak up political frustration. And also – to try not to shoot itself in the foot. That is a distinct possibility: in its short history, the party has a remarkable record of splits, feuds and internal rivalries.
Elections in Saxony, which borders the Czech Republic, will be held on September 1. Of the three eastern states, it has the most volatile political climate.
It is currently ruled by a coalition of the two dominant parties in post-war German politics, the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. But polls suggest a collapse in support for both, making the coalition unlikely to survive in that form.
In 2014, the newly-formed AfD won 6.5 percent in Saxony. That seems a very long time ago now. In 2017’s general election, the AfD achieved shock success here, topping the polls with 27 percent support. Opinion surveys suggest the party remains close to that level, competing with a weakened CDU for first place.
Traditional parties falling fast
In Brandenburg, which surrounds the capital Berlin, the focus will be on the Social Democrats. The SPD has ruled the state in a variety of coalitions since reunification in 1990. It currently rules with the Left Party, the successor to the East German communist party.
On the face of it, the state is doing well. Unemployment is low, and the economy is outperforming the national average. But changes to the overall political landscape are also being felt here.
The last two years have seen an acceleration in the nationwide collapse in the SPD’s support. This has been mirrored in Brandenburg, where its support has fallen from 32 percent in 2014 to around 20 percent now. The AfD has reached the same level, up from 12 percent four years ago.
Thuringia currently has a Left Party state premier, governing with the SPD and Greens in a “red-red-green” coalition. As elsewhere, polls indicate a steep fall in support for traditional and ruling parties, with the CDU, SPD and the Left all set to lose substantial support.
The AfD is led in the state by Björn Höcke, considered a right-wing extremist even by the standards of the party. As in the other states, AfD is very unlikely to achieve power here, but will look to become strongest party and to make the arithmetic of alternative coalitions as difficult as possible.
Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. The article was adapted into English by Brían Hanrahan. To contact the author: [email protected]