The Rise of the Right-Wing AfD Party in Germany

Image Caption: Protestors at a far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) demonstration carry signs with anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messages.

At the end of October, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would not be running for reelection as chairwoman of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party. Her decision is largely due to her allied parties’ losses in the regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse. Merkel’s political party is currently in a precarious alliance with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). Disagreements over immigration policy have plagued the leaders of the three parties for many months. The internal discord is reflected in voters’ decision to leave the aforementioned parties and ally themselves with the rapidly rising Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, which campaigns on an anti-immigrant and anti-euro platform.

The current political instability in Germany can likely be traced back to 2015, when Merkel permitted more than one million refugees, most of whom were from the Middle East, to enter Germany during the height of Europe’s refugee crisis. From that point on, many voters began to distance themselves from Merkel and her constituent parties. Working class voters from industrial areas of Germany, who traditionally made up a sizable portion of the SPD’s voting base, found themselves increasingly drawn to the rhetoric of the AfD.

Yet, the palpable support for the AfD in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt hardly fits the narrative of working class voters being drawn to the far-right party. Residents of Ingolstadt command the highest per capita in Germany. Furthermore, with a prosperous economy and relatively few migrant entries into Bavaria, it is surprising the the AfD has been able to secure such a strong foothold in that state.

Despite the comparative wealthiness of Ingolstadt, citizens fear that an influx of immigrants would lead to fewer economic opportunities, unemployment benefits, and pensions for themselves. Interestingly, two out of five residents in Ingolstadt are immigrants, many of them Muslim. Kraus von Sande, who was the AfD candidate, contends that he does not have a problem with all Muslim immigrants, citing the Turkish as a prime example of immigrants who have successfully integrated themselves into German society. However, the earlier immigrants, who came before the refugee crisis in 2015, believe that the new immigrants coming in as a result of Merkel’s immigration policies cannot contribute to the German economy. Indeed, the AfD draws the greatest support from ethnic Germans from Russia, who came to Bavaria after the fall of communism in the late 1980s. These immigrants’ support for tougher policies may stem from their discontentment with the government’s unsuccessful integration of the migrants they let in since 2015.

While supporters of the AfD believe that immigrants may threaten the economic stability in Ingolstadt, the former candidate for the CSU, Alfred Grob, argues that current economic circumstances are instilling unfounded fear in people. Increasing rents in the city, coupled with pensions that do not match the rising cost of living, have led to  “German angst.”

However, simply attributing the changing political arena to populism seems to have been premature. After the conclusion of the regional elections, the AfD is now represented in all sixteen regional parliaments in Germany. This suggests, at the very least, a quite homogeneous geographical distribution of support for the AfD. The transition of Bavaria from a historically CSU-strongholdthe CSU has governed the state almost every year since 1946to a now AfD governed state owes more to voters’ disappointment in the CSU on immigration policies than it does to the appeal of the AfD. To be fair, the CSU has recognized its fleeing voter base and attempted to push back against some of Merkel’s more liberal immigration stances. The AfD, on its part, has seized this critical moment, effectively capitalizing on infighting among the left-wing parties.

Looking at the political situation from this point of view, it is more understandable why voters would align themselves with the AfD, especially if stricter immigration laws are at the forefront of their minds. As Beat Wittmann, a partner at investment consultancy Porta Advisors, said, “The problem is that Germans, on average, would like to have Merkel in charge but they would like to have CSU policies on immigration and that’s the problem right now.” A shift in priorities may be critical for Merkel and her allied parties if they want to halt the AfD’s increasing influence.