In eastern Germany on Sunday, two populous states (or Bundesländer) will elect their regional legislatures — in votes that are quite important for German politics at large. For months, polls have shown the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) competing for first place both in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, and in Saxony, with Dresden and Leipzig as major cities.
While the AfD has significant support throughout Germany, the party is particularly strong in many of the neue Bundesländer, or new federal states, created in the territory of the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s vote.
The difficult transformation of the east
Many eastern Germans have long been highly skeptical about mainstream politics. In 1990, after the “peaceful revolution” and the overthrow of communist rule, the socialist GDR was dissolved and incorporated into the German Federal Republic. That reintroduced free elections as well as civil and political rights to the east.
However, unification also resulted in high unemployment and discontent after former state-owned industries had to compete in capitalist markets — and often failed. Many of those who lost their jobs felt their long professional careers disrespected.
Thirty years later, many remain unhappy with inequalities between eastern and western Germany, including stark differences in income and wealth, western Germans holding a disproportionate share of top jobs in the east, and even eastern German painters being excluded from major art exhibitions. This year, polling found that more than one-third of eastern Germans still perceive themselves as “second-class citizens.”
As has been true in many Central and Eastern European countries, many eastern Germans have emigrated, almost all of them to western Germany. While the western German population has recently risen to a record high, the population in the east has dropped from about 16 million in 1990 to about 14 million — which was the population more than a century ago, in 1905. Some major eastern German cities are booming, but many smaller towns, and much of the countryside, have emptied out.
Thus, even though a substantial share of all Germans are critical of how their political system is functioning, a larger share of eastern than western Germans are dissatisfied. In the past, many disaffected citizens voted for the left-leaning party Die Linke, which grew in part from the former GDR Communist Party. However, for the past five years, those votes have increasingly shifted to the AfD.
The prevalence of anti-immigration attitudes and a history of far-right activism
Political scientist Kai Arzheimer found that Germans in the east are more likely to oppose immigration, making the AfD’s anti-immigrant platform compelling. That’s true in part because the east and west have had different experiences with immigration. While the west brought in high levels of immigration from southern Europe and Turkey during the second half of the 20th century, that has not been true in the east. Even today, about 95 percent of individuals with an immigrant background live in the west or Berlin, and only about 5 percent in the east — despite the fact that the former GDR includes about one-fourth of Germany’s total population.
Nevertheless, many eastern German regions have a history of anti-immigrant activism. In the early 1990s, violent racists were attacking immigrants in Brandenburg and Saxony, inciting riots so severe that at times their targets had to be evacuated. In 2014, almost a year before the “refugee crisis” in Europe, a Dresden group called Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident, hit international headlines. At its peak, about 20,000 of its supporters were marching through Dresden, mainly spreading anti-Islam messages.
AfD isn’t the first far-right party to reach the Brandenburg and Saxony legislatures, but AfD has been especially successful in forcing established parties to struggle to find ways to respond, as political scientist Anna-Sophie Heinze shows.
What comes next?
So far, about 20 to 25 percent of those states’ voters say they’ll vote AfD; a wide majority of citizens make clear that they will not vote for the party. With support divided among many parties, AfD has a chance of being the front-runner in both Brandenburg and Saxony. Still, all other relevant parties have said they will exclude AfD, with some dissenting voices in the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). What seems almost certain is AfD will emerge as the biggest opposition party.
Forming governments will be difficult. Coalitions may have to involve three or even four parties; in Saxony, some are also considering a minority government. Brandenburg is now governed by a left-wing coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Die Linke, while Saxony has a “grand coalition” of the CDU and SPD. Neither coalition has a realistic chance of surviving the elections. The Greens — which until now have been weak in most of the east — may win enough seats to enter one or both governments, benefiting from increased concerns over global warming.
The regional elections will have consequences for national politics. Germany’s national government is also run by a “grand coalition,” with the SPD subordinated to Angela Merkel’s CDU. Many SPD left-wingers want to leave that coalition to try to gain strength in the opposition. If the SPD loses dramatically in the east, those who wish to withdraw from the national coalition might gain strength, with some running for the national party’s leadership election in December. If CDU branches lose, Merkel will be targeted for criticism, also because many regional politicians will prefer blaming her rather than themselves.
Whatever happens Sunday, AfD will further demonstrate its strength in German politics, especially in the east. The party has already gained in Brandenburg and Saxony in the general elections of 2017 and in the European Parliament elections in May. Given AfD’s growing strength, a minority of CDU right-wingers have started to consider cooperating with them.
A key question in German politics remains whether these right-wing forces will eventually win power. If so, we’ll see that happen at the regional level first — making these elections important for understanding German politics.