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German Elections: Why did the Progressives fare badly and why did the AfD do so well?

Christian Odendahl
Chief Economist

The major shock in the German elections was that the right wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland won nearly 13% of the vote whilst the centre right CDU/CSU and the centre left SPD lost considerable ground compared to the 2013 elections. In an interview with the Progressive Post, Christian Odendahl explains where he thinks things went wrong for progressive parties and why the AfD has been so successful.


PP : Is the growth of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) a direct consequence of the weakness of progressive ideas in Germany, namely of the Greens, Die Linke and SPD.

Christian Odendahl : In part that is true, yes. After the British people voted for Brexit and the American voted for Donald Trump as US President, people were quick to point to globalisation and people being economically left behind as reasons for these results. Subsequently people realised that it was also about those who are being culturally left behind.

In Germany it was clearer. The AfD grew on the back of the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. The growth of the AfD was driven in part by a protest vote and a feeling of being culturally left behind. As a result, the discussion in Germany is less about the economic reasons for the party’s growth but we shouldn’t dismiss those entirely. Particularly in the East, and in economically weaker regions in the West, economics does play a role. In addition, a sense that the country was drifting apart was a big motivator for people to vote for the AfD.

The SPD had trouble formulating a progressive economic alternative while in the coalition government. Die Linke lost in the East because of the protest vote but gained in almost every district in the West. They are in general not very popular in the West because they are seen as an eastern party. But the 6.1% that they won in conservative Bavaria, for example, shows the desire in Germany for a more social democrat agenda. The SPD failed to capture that vote.

The SPD will try to get the social democrat vote back by talking about issues such as inequality and the lack of housing.

The Greens have a different socio-economic votership, their voters have got older over time, so they ran two relatively centrist candidates and are currently not the major progressive force that they had been in the past.

PP : How will they fight against this party?

Christian Odendahl : The Greens are likely to be part of the government, and their main struggle is to keep their own party united. So the job of containing the AfD will be left to the CDU on the right and the SPD and Die Linke on the left. The SPD will try to get the social democrat vote back by talking about issues such as inequality and the lack of housing.

The key will be to strip away the racism from issues raised by the AfD. Adopting the terminology and narrative of the AfD would be a grave mistake. During the German election campaign, for example, Die Linke took some AfD issues and stripped them of their xenophobic content. So when the AfD referred to “housing shortages because of refugees”, Die Linke said “let’s talk about housing”. I think that is a good approach, also for the SPD.

PP : Should Europeans be worried about the growth of a nationalist party in Germany?

Christian Odendahl : Europeans shouldn’t necessarily be worried. The AfD still convinced only 12.6% of the German electorate. The AfD has not caused a major disruption to the political scene as Brexit and Trump did, despite the euro crisis, the refugee crisis etc.

The AfD’s success does make forming a coalition much more complicated. The FDP represents economically orthodox voters. If in government, the Greens will be careful not to agree to any policies that their core green vote would disagree with. The CSU/CDU have different goals entirely. Thus, all three parties are pulling in different directions.

The SPD has said that it will be in opposition. In the past it has helped out the Merkel government. For example, when the Merkel government didn’t have a majority to vote through the Greek bailout, the SPD helped out. This time, in opposition, the SPD will be careful to be a strict opposition and make life as difficult as possible for the government. Outside a major crisis, it won’t help out the government.

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