The regional elections held on 13 March 2016 in the German states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt were the first elections to take place in some of the larger German regions since the European elections and the regional elections held in 2014. Almost 13 million voters were called to the ballot, representing over one fifth of the German electorate. 1.3 million voters cast their ballot in favour of the AfD (Alternative for Germany – a conservative right-wing party).
The election results have caused considerable upheaval in the German political landscape for four different reasons:
1: “For right-wing parties, the elections delivered an outcome of historic dimensions in the three regions of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt. Never before has a party to the right of the CDU/CSU managed to win such a high number of votes.”Against the backdrop of heated debates on refugees and migrants, the AfD came in second after the conservatives in Saxony-Anhalt and third in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate – an incredible result bearing in mind that this was the first time the party had appeared on the ballot paper in this type of election. Almost a quarter of voters in Saxony-Anhalt supported the AfD; it received twice as many votes as the SPD. In Baden-Württemberg, the AfD performed better than the SPD with 15.5% of the votes, and the party won 12.6% in Rhineland-Palatinate. These results reflect a continuing German-wide trend: the growth of a right-wing conservative party which utilises numerous elements of classic right-wing populism and demonstrates ideological similarities with (as well as including some of the same party members as) parts of the right-wing extremist movement. For the first time, there is a party to the right of the CDU/CSU whose popularity is not limited to a certain region, such as similar parties e.g. the Republicans, the Schill party in Hamburg or the DVU (Deutsche Volksunion – German People’s Union, a right-wing extremist party).
2: With refugee and asylum policy being the election’s dominant topics, the question regarding societal coexistence in a pluralistic society that is constantly changing was raised against the backdrop of increased and unrestricted immigration. The implementation of neoliberal employment laws in 2005 by the SPD and the Greens led to the birth of DIE LINKE. As a consequence, a social division grew which exacerbated existing social and socio-cultural polarisations that, in turn, are now manifesting themselves in the rise of the right-wing conservative AfD. This political awakening on the right is shared by a significant proportion of a society which feels very insecure on many different levels. In the East German states, this phenomenon of growing insecurity dates back to the late 1980s and the collapse of state socialism. These processes are part of a nationwide development caused by fundamental shifts in German society that stem from neoliberal globalisation and liberalisation of employment and the labour market, especially the Hartz reforms (German labour market reforms which implemented sanctions in certain cases) and the growing precariousness in terms of work and life in general. This is a development trend that affects the whole of society and goes far beyond social issues: armed conflicts leading to state collapse in many Middle Eastern countries, the lack of economic and social consolidation in the East and southeast of Europe, as well as the continuing economic and financial crisis, have a large impact. The EU’s crises, the consequences of wars (e.g. in Syria and Ukraine), as well as the problems arising from refugee policy are no longer just problems that exist outside of the people’s own immediate setting; they now impact people’s everyday lives in a new way. External and internal threats as well as insecurities are perceived as interlinked and, against the backdrop of rapidly waning confidence in the political institutions of democracy which have long been undermined, pave the way for a critique of society on the right.
3: The AfD is not just an embodiment of a nationalist and social-conservative movement splitting with the core conservative block, it represents the battle lines being drawn between those in favour of a pro-European and neoliberal policy stance, on the one hand (CDU/CSU), and a nationalist-traditionalist and social-conservative stance on the other (AfD) which can be seen in the party’s approach to national and European asylum and migration policy. In part, this battle line is diametrically opposed to the socio-economic battle line (social state vs. free market economy) and illustrates the increasing importance of the socio-cultural battle on whether open and pluralistic societies should be established or societies should be isolated and secluded. Thus, the AfD represents a “significant socio-political minority” which bases itself on a political current rooted in tradition and social conservatism that exists in today’s society and no longer has a political home. It receives support from certain parts of the German middle class, as well as academics and intellectuals. Furthermore, the AfD attracts supporters from deeply insecure parts of society who want to voice their protest.
4: These election results illustrate the crisis of the established parties in a spectacular manner (a growing section of society also considers DIE LINKE a part of these parties). The three incumbent state premiers remained in office – the leaders were running for office, not the parties they represent. The result is an expression of the need for stability and confidence in uncertain times. This confidence is built around a single person. The parties, however, have received support in a different way: while for the first time in a German federal state the Greens in Baden-Württemberg, and their incumbent state premier Winfried Kretschmann, have become the largest party, winning 30.3% of the vote, in Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt they had to fight for their place in the respective state parliaments, obtaining just above 5% of the vote. While in Rhineland-Palatinate the SPD, and its state premier Malu Dreyer, came first with 36.2% of the vote, it lost 10% of its voters in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt respectively. The outgoing ruling coalitions have lost their required majorities, which will possibly lead to three-party coalitions or grand coalitions – the latter referring to a ‘black-green’ coalition in Baden-Württemberg, with the conservatives acting as the junior partner. The share of votes held by the traditionally larger parties, the CDU and the SPD, dropped to a mere 40% in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt. These developments are not only complicating the creation of coalition governments, but are impacting the stability of the Federal German party system and demonstrate the advancing erosion of the people’s allegiance to institutional actors such as political parties.