Germany: A pact with the far right?

Franco delle Donne

8 mins - 23 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

Germany is undergoing a profound change in its political system. For several months now, the far right has been steadily growing in voting intentions at the federal level. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) reached an all-time high when last September the public opinion institute Infratest dimap measured 23%. This put it in second place ahead of the three federal government parties: the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens (Bündnis 90/die Grünen), and the Liberals (FDP). But something else happened in the last regional elections in Hessen and Bayern: the radical right-wing party achieved double-digit results and increased its electoral strength by four to five percentage points compared to the last election. This is the consolidation of AfD in the west of the country, where it was considered much weaker than in the territories of the defunct GDR in the east of the country.

These results indicate that the far-right is beginning to break through the imaginary boundary between East and West. In this sense, the party is emerging as an actor with much greater power to influence the formation of governments. For certain sectors it has even managed to legitimise itself despite being recognised as an extremist force. And this is where a question arises that could become the beginning of a new political era for Germany: can the AfD’s electoral results force the breaking of the cordon sanitaire?

Normalisation in Process
47% of Germans would agree with the AfD’s participation in a regional government. Another 47% would be against it. The remaining 6% do not know. These figures come from a survey published by the weekly Der Spiegel, which shows that the far right has achieved one of its main goals since the beginning of its existence 10 years ago: to move towards legitimisation. The fact that the Federal Office for the Protection of Fundamental Law (BfV) considers some of its leaders, its internal organisations and certain groups that support it to be right-wing extremists and a danger to democracy is not to matter too much. In fact, around 80% of AfD voters in the elections in Hessen and Bayern agree with the statement: “if they talk about the important issues, I don’t care if they are right-wing extremists”.

The pressure on political parties at regional and local levels to enter into dialogue or pacts with the AfD is increasing as the far right continues to gain support and, above all, seats. During its ten years of existence, the AfD has managed to consolidate its position in the east of the country, while in the west it has achieved meagre results, despite a few exceptions. The difference in voting intentions for the far right between the east and the west is not minor. In the east, AfD has consolidated its position and in almost all regions it has more than 30%.
In several regions it is even in first place, and there is already talk of difficulties in forming a government when almost a third of the seats are in the hands of a party with which no one wants to enter into a pact, or at least that is what all parties have officially stated. In fact, internal discussions about a possible pact with AfD exist. In Thüringen, for example, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faces the dilemma of breaking with one of its historical maxims: never to enter into a pact with the post-communist left (die Linke) or with AfD. The problem is that without cooperation there is no way to form a government in this region because of the deep fragmentation. 

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At the communal level, alliances with the far right are nothing new. A study by political scientist Steven Hummel of the University of Leipzig identifies 20 pacts between AfD and other parties. However, no party is proud of this, and in the public sphere, when a leader expresses something along these lines, the scandal is almost immediate, as happened to Friedrich Merz, leader of the CDU, a few months ago.

However, the recent elections in Bayern and Hessen, in which the AfD won 14.6% and 18.4% of the vote respectively, make one wonder whether this division between East and West is coming to an end when it comes to support for this party. Possibly for different reasons, both on one side of the fallen Berlin Wall and on the other, the far right is receiving more votes. It is thus positioning itself as an increasingly important player, one that could seriously jeopardise the formation of governments in Germany. 

The Crossroads of the Centre-Right
In this context, the CDU, together with its Bavarian partners in the CSU, must make a momentous decision for its future and that of the country: to opt for the path of polarisation and confront the current government in every possible way, in particular with the Social Democrats and Greens; or to return to the path of the centre, which characterised the party throughout the Merkel era. 

Going for a more conservative profile that exposes conflicts may serve to give the party a clearer profile vis-à-vis the rest. An option for those who do not share the progressive or left-wing vision. However, such a path may encourage the shaping of an agenda that is much more beneficial to the far right. In other words, polarisation ends up being a double-edged sword and, in light of the results of the last regional elections, can be detrimental to the Union itself.

In Bavaria, the CSU repeated its result of five years ago, the second lowest in its history. But the most remarkable thing is that to its right two parties took 30% of the vote: the conservatives of Freie Wähler (15.8%) and the far-right AfD (14.6%). There, the leader of the conservatives, Markus Söder, opted for a polarising discourse that was highly critical of the current government. The problem is that instead of focusing on issues that his party represents, such as the management of the economy, he decided to polarise with the Greens by using the agenda that the far right dominates best: migration.

In Hessen, by contrast, Boris Rhein’s CDU won a big victory, beating its last record by more than seven percentage points. Rhein is a more moderate politician with a much less histrionic image than his colleague from Bayern. These characteristics were combined with a clear and forceful campaign message: “Build a government of the centre”.

Rhein’s style and proposal is the CDU’s option in the face of polarisation. A possibility that also carries risks, as this idea includes the scenario of an eventual government with the Greens, something that at present is currently losing a lot of support among the more conservative electorate.

The Bid for Change
In many countries mid-term elections function as a thermometer of the government’s popularity. In Germany this role is played by regional elections. At least one is held every year, and it is there that all eyes are on the results to assess whether the parties of the federal government are supported or punished. What happened in Hessen and Bayern shows that the tripartite is in serious difficulties. Dissatisfaction with the current government has also manifested itself in post-election polls, revealing that voters are dissatisfied with the performance of Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and the ruling coalition. In Bavaria, only 25% of voters say they are happy with the prime minister’s performance, while in Hessen this number rises to 32%. In addition, the liberal party (FDP) also faced difficulties, being left out of parliament in Bayern and managing to enter by only about 800 votes in Hessen. For the Greens the situation is no better: they lost the leadership of the opposition in Bayern and more than 3 percentage points in Hessen.

In the face of the government’s electoral debacle, which has reached its historic low in terms of voting intentions, the CDU as opposition leader has the chance to offer a national project that expresses a change in the run-up to the 2025 elections. In the face of economic concerns and the feeling of instability in many sectors, the Union could regain its leading role in German politics.
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