European Union

What have we learned from Germany's regional elections?

An unidentified man casts his vote for the state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, March 13, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Annika Brack
Head of Community Development, Regional Agenda, Europe, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Contrary to what you may have read in this morning’s papers, the regional elections in Germany cannot be interpreted as a stern rebuke of Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy. Her party’s losses remain limited, and she in fact wins new potential coalition partners for the federal elections in 2017. From a European perspective, the picture is darker: the populist Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) great success in this election shows once again that European politics have entered a vicious cycle of fragmentation of the party landscape, weak coalitions, and disappointing policy outcomes.

Three reasons why this was a good day for Angela Merkel

First, contrary to what many expected, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) did not suffer a crushing defeat. In Rhineland-Palatinate and in Saxony-Anhalt, her party lost no more than 4%, which is actually surprisingly good for a party that has been governing at the federal level for over a decade. In the third state, Baden-Württemberg, the CDU may indeed have lost 12%, but it was a highly personalized vote in favour of the immensely popular Minister-President from the Green party, Winfried Kretschmann. In a direct ballot, he would have won 75% of the overall vote against only 16% for the CDU’s lacklustre candidate Guido Wolf. Polls show that even among the CDU voters, 87% were satisfied with Kretschmann’s record as Minister-President. Even business leaders preferred him. The Greens may finally prove worthy of being a viable coalition partner for the CDU.

Second, this was not a vote against Merkel’s refugee policy. Kretschmann is a strong advocate of Merkel’s open door policy to refugees while her own candidate, who lost by a landslide, had chosen to distance himself from the Chancellor by advocating a much harder stance. Wolf went so far as to dub his Green opponent a Kanzlerin-Versteher, or Merkel-adept, which does not seem to have hurt Kretschmann at the polls.

Third, the majority of the populist AfD's voters in all three states came from a very specific demographic: people who have been abstaining from voting. In other words, the party’s success is mainly due to an impressive mobilization of people who are frustrated with established politics in general, not Merkel in particular. Moreover, the AfD attracted voters from parties across the political landscape, regardless of whether they are for or against more immigration. According to a poll, AfD voters felt that the party calls things “as they are”, and raises issues that other politicians are not willing to confront. Infratest Dimap showed that in all three elections, social security and economic growth remained more important concerns for voters than migration policy.

…and a bad day for European politics

More than anything else, AfD’s remarkable success comes down to a growing rejection of the establishment, and a questioning of the effectiveness of traditional political parties to solve major challenges of our times. Even in a strong democracy like Germany, populist one-hit wonders have become part of the landscape. At the end of the day, the AfD’s success will be measured by its staying power. Previous challengers, like the Pirate Party have vanished, while The Left have experienced significant losses. What’s more important is that each election shows the same worrying trend, a movement away from the political centre.

Increasingly, voters are looking for alternatives to the political parties on offer. They feel alienated from the political debate, and hope for more decisive action on topics they are most concerned about. Party leaders in Germany and Europe should listen to these concerns as this public disaffection with the governing elites threatens to eventually put the European project itself into question.

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