The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which made a whirlwind entry into the German parliament in 2017, is set to lose its status as the main opposition force following Sunday’s election but has at the same time emerged as the strongest party in parts of eastern Germany.
The party, which rose to prominence on an anti-immigrant ticket after the arrival of around 1m refugees in 2015 but has more recently focused its attention on attacking the government’s pandemic management, dropped just over 2% nationally to secure 10.3% of the vote.
It will lose its prominent status in the Bundestag, which has allowed it to take to the podium immediately after the chancellor has spoken, an opportunity it has often used to turn parliamentary debates into fiery and combative affairs. That position will now go to whichever of the higher-scoring parties does not enter government after coalition negotiations are complete.
Still, it has consolidated its power base in the eastern state of Saxony, emerging once again as the strongest party there with 24.6% (2.4% lower than 2017), and has become the leading party in Thuringia for the first time, securing 24%, 1.3% more than in 2017.
It appeared to make gains on the back of the poor performance of the Christian Democrats (CDU) in Saxony, which secured just over 17%, a fall of almost 10%, putting the conservatives in third place behind the AfD and Social Democrats (SPD).
In Thuringia, where the AfD has been placed under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution for its suspected ties to rightwing extremism, the CDU dropped 12 percentage points to third place with 16.9%, behind the SPD.
The party was founded in 2013 as an anti-Euro movement, but has since won solid support among communities that have struggled economically after German reunification and made the topic of the “disadvantaged east” its central theme.
Analysts have suggested that the AfD, which made few gains elsewhere, has exhausted its chances of expanding beyond its strongholds in the former communist east, arguing that it has been damaged by the perception that it is primarily a protest party that has little chance of entering government, since all parties have ruled out working with it. But the party’s leadership, despite internal wrangling over its future direction, has suggested it is open to expanding its potential by teaming up with the CDU.
The focus at its election party at a dance club in Berlin on Sunday night was to celebrate not so much its own relative success as the departure of Angela Merkel, portraying it as one of its own achievements, despite it having been a long-planned move that was largely her own decision.
“Merkel is gone!” Alexander Gauland, a former party leader, shouted to party faithful from the stage, in an echo of the chant “Merkel raus” – Merkel out – which has been frequently heard by protest groups at events and election rallies attended by the outgoing chancellor over several years.
“To get her out was our goal,” Gauland said, to applause, “and we have fulfilled that today.”
Gauland urged the embattled conservatives – who under Armin Laschet returned its worst result in a federal election – to reverse its decision to never work with the AfD. He insisted that the CDU would be forced to “change course” if the SPD came to power.
It is an idea with which some in the CDU have toyed. But the conservatives’ other strategy, to try to play the AfD at its own game by putting up an arch-conservative for election in an AfD stronghold in the expectation of winning back voters – which if successful could have become a blueprint for the party’s future – was shown to have failed on Sunday.
Hans Georg Maaßen, the former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, stood in electoral district 196 in Thuringia in the hope that his provocative tone and open campaign to push the party to the right would help the conservatives win over AfD voters. But he only narrowly secured second place, behind the SPD’s candidate Frank Ullrich, a former Olympian, who was almost 12 points ahead (with 33.6%), and only came in 1% ahead of the AfD.
Another unsuccessful CDU candidate in Saxony was Marco Wanderwitz, the government’s ombudsman for eastern Germany, who took the opposite tack to Maaßen by trying to distance himself from the AfD. His stigmatisation of its supporters, who he declared were “lost to a democratic system” having been “socialised through dictatorship”, was seen to have backfired.
Tino Chrupalla, a painter by trade, who beat his CDU rival to win a direct mandate for the AfD in the Saxon city of Görlitz on the Polish border, with 28.6%, said he had “punished the CDU”, and expressed his ambitions to become party leader.
He has already indicated one of his future goals: to strive for a “Dexit” – the departure of Germany from the European Union.