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German Election: How Far-Right AfD Hit Its Ceiling

Germany's anti-immigrant far-right party has so far been unable to benefit from the decline of the Merkel's CDU party and find new voters.

German Election: How Far-Right AfD Hit Its Ceiling

A Protest against the AFD and their line during the AFD Bundestag election campaign with Jan Nolte and Mariana Harder Kühnel, September 2021

Matthias Kamann

BERLIN — When the results of the German federal election arrive Sunday, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party should have something to celebrate: the party, which has made nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric a staple of its electoral program, could become the leading political party in the states of Thuringia and Saxony. In addition, the party is likely to elect several members of Parliament in the two states.

Security is also a major concern.

And yet, increasingly, we say that every AfD gain is relative. While the AfD may be making small gains in some German states, its share of the vote is poised to decrease compared to the last federal election in 2017. In nationwide polling surveys, the party has been stuck between 10-12% for months: While the ruling CDU hemorrhages voters as it seeks to build its future after the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the far-right doesn't seem to have been able to exploit the opportunity. Its modest advances are largely happening in places that were already party strongholds, like Saxony and Thuringia.

There are a few bright spots for the party, and some individual politicians stand to benefit from the situation. Among the issues exploited is the fear of rules targeting those who haven't been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the perception that any criticism of policy to address climate change is immediately is discredited as "climate denial." Security is also a major concern.

But such opinions are not very widespread in most German states, where the AfD has remained weak and struggles to attract disenchanted CDU voters. This federal election could have been a chance for the far-right party to extend beyond their core voters and make a difference nationwide, but it appears that leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla are heading for failure.

Completely removed from the rest of the party spectrum, the AfD is not benefiting from the decline of Merkel's CDU. In surveys, the party that seems to be taking advantage of the shift is the center-left SPD, not the AfD, not even in its traditional strongholds in East Germany.

Bundestag candidate Georg Pazderski — Photo: Sandro Halank

Georg Pazderski, a former AfD group leader in the Berlin House of Representatives and currently running for the Bundestag in the German capital, agrees that the party's needle is not budging this election. Pazderski says his party is too dependent on pre-existing opinions. The fact that AfD is significantly stronger in East Germany than in West Germany is "not because our West German politicians are offering worse policies or addressing citizens less well," he told Die Welt. "But we have to take note of the fact that in East Germany the basic willingness to vote for the AfD is higher than in West Germany."

The AfD can only advance in Germany if it makes sure it is perceived as a constructive political force.

This is also the experience in Berlin, where the party fares much better in the eastern part of the city than in the west, "although we are making the same bourgeois conservative politics throughout the city."

According to Pazderski, the AfD can only advance in Germany if it makes sure it is perceived as a constructive political force. In other words, people should understand "that it will be able to form a government coalition in the next few years, making conservative majorities a possibility against the shift to the left."

Lenk, who was born in 1982 and is not part of the more extremist currents in the Saxon AfD, considers the party's benefit from the downfall of the CDU to be dependent on it "not appearing rowdy or populist, but rather as a solid alternative with objective arguments."

Some candidates did try this in this election campaign. There were nationwide attempts in May when Bundestag member Joana Cotar and former Bundeswehr Lieutenant General Joachim Wundrak applied for their party's top candidacy. "Elections are won shifting to the center," Wundrak said at the time in an interview with Welt. "There, we want to tap into groups of voters who have not yet voted AfD."

But the centrist push was defeated by the party's current leaders Weidel and Chrupalla, and their attempt to find new voters has been a failure so far. Chrupalla has doubled down on the party's radical anti-immigration stance with posters saying "Zero Asylum in Germany!" in his constituency of Görlitz, the Eastern Saxon town where he is likely to defend his seat. Weidel, too, has repeatedly reinforced her adversarial resolve against and fundamental distance from majority voters: just this August, she called Germany a "hippie state" for not introducing new limits on the right of refugees to claim asylum. "This society is so crazy," she said.

Die Welt
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