AfD now third party in east Germany amid falling support

The rightwing, anti-immigration party was once seen – or feared – as a serious challenger to Germany’s traditional political establishment. After a row of scandals, their support seems to be dropping off the map.

AfD members cast votes at the party's conference last year. Voters seem increasingly unsure about saying "ja" to them at next year's election.
AfD members cast votes at the party's conference last year. Voters seem increasingly unsure about saying "ja" to them at next year's election.dpa

Berlin-At Germany’s last parliamentary election in 2017, the AfD and its members had cause to celebrate – at only the second national election since their formation in 2013, they secured representation in the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament. Delegates from the party currently sit in all 16 of Germany’s regional state parliaments.

But new statistics appear to reveal something is going wrong for the party in its key battleground. In its “Sunday trend” report, pollster Kantar asks voters which party they would vote for if parliamentary elections were happening that week – at this time last year, the AfD received 24 per cent of the theoretical vote in the five states that make up the former East Germany, putting it in the lead with just one point ahead of Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party.

However, according to the most recent poll, its support in the east now stands at just 18 per cent – pushing it down to third place. That leaves it slightly behind the Left party (Die Linke) at 19 per cent, but significantly behind the CDU at 30 per cent. The SPD then follows with 13 per cent, the Greens on 9 per cent, the FDP 5 per cent and all other parties totalling 6 per cent between them.

Support down in eastern strongholds

The numbers suggest the party is getting left behind just as the run-up to next year’s election gathers pace. Their positioning in the east matters because of their previous success at regional elections there – since 2016, regional elections in the eastern states have consistently seen the AfD unsettle the traditional order of the CDU and centre-left SPD as Germany’s two main parties, becoming the second strongest political force in all five parliaments. By comparison, they came in fifth at the last election to Berlin’s city parliament, also in 2016. At the last national election in 2017, they picked up 18.9 per cent of votes cast in the east – compared to just 8 per cent in the west.

This week’s new figures put the AfD in fourth place nationally, behind the CDU, the clear frontrunner with 35 per cent support, the Greens at 18 per cent, and the SPD at 16. The Left party gained a point, bringing it to 9 per cent support, while the FDP languished with 6.

Polls down for everyone during pandemic - except the CDU

So why is the party once seen (and feared by some) as a spearhead of resurgent rightwing, anti-EU and anti-immigration movements across Europe now seemingly fizzling out? Kantar’s polling data, recorded weekly, appears to suggest that the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t done the party any favours.

In February, the AfD was polling as highly as 15 per cent - higher than the 12.6 per cent of votes it picked up in the 2017 election. But since early March, Angela Merkel’s CDU (and indeed she herself) have enjoyed supreme approval ratings which have only been on the up. The AfD isn’t the only party to have been damaged by that surge – voter data shows a clear drop-off point for practically all parties (except the SPD) at the same time in early March that CDU support leapt skyward.

A number of political scandals in the last year have not helped the party either. Most recently, shocking footage came to light featuring Christian Lüth, former spokesperson for the party’s Bundestag fraction and previously for the whole party, talking about “shooting or gassing” migrants. In the same conversation, he said it was in the party’s interests to create political disquiet in Germany which it could then capitalise on. Earlier this year, he also went as far as describing himself as a fascist.

In May, the party’s managerial board stripped Andreas Kalbitz, its former boss in Brandenburg, of his position and membership over his undisclosed previous membership of the far-right German Republican party in the 1990s, as well as the Heimattreuen Jugend Deutschland (HDJ), a banned neo-nazi youth organization. Following his dismissal, Kalbitz continued to disgrace himself by punching his replacement, Dennis Hochloch, so hard that he ended up in hospital with a ruptured spleen.

What the numbers point to is that the AfD’s footing going into next year’s election is going to be very different from where they were before the 2017 election. Germany’s other main parties have consistently declared that they would never work with the AfD through coalitions or voting blocs in regional or national elections.

But their polling before 2017 led some to doubt to what extent that would be avoidable. Heads rolled after the 2019 election of a new minister president in eastern Thuringia, when the FDP candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected by surprise as a result of votes from his own party, the CDU and, controversially, the AfD. After national outcry, he ended up resigning, Angela Merkel called the fiasco “unforgivable”, and CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then thought of as a likely Merkel successor as chancellor, also resigned her position.

Up until now, the AfD’s performance at the polls has given it significant power to disrupt – something the likes of Christian Lüth seem to value highly. But if its current polling trend continues, it could be set to lose that power in 2021. This time around, the party that looks likely to win the biggest upswing in votes from 2017 – and could become a desirable coalition partner – is the Green Party, which according to Kandar is currently polling at 18 per cent - more than double the 8.9 per cent of votes it picked up last time.