In spite of the wide-spread, largely foreign, media reaction to the three state elections, the sky did not fall on March 13. Chancellor Merkel’s unprecedented decision to welcome over one million refugees, which has certainly challenged the Federal Republic’s cultural, social, and political institutions, was not rejected by voters. Indeed about two-thirds of the electorate supported parties and candidates who endorsed Merkel’s liberal approach. Two of the major winners—Winfried Kretschmann and Malu Dreyer—were emphatic in their endorsement of the Willkommenskultur. They easily ran ahead of their CDU counterparts—Guido Wolf and Julia Klöckner—who attempted to distance themselves from their fellow Christian Democrats in Berlin. The lone incumbent CDU minister-president, Saxony-Anhalt’s Reiner Hasseloff, also decided to position himself closer to Merkel’s chief critic, Bavaria’s Horst Seehofer, than to the chancellor, with very negative results.
Nonetheless, these election outcomes should not diminish the continued importance of the refugee issue. The consensus model of German politics remains under stress. But this dealignment process predates the refugee issue. For over thirty years the demographic-cultural core of the two “elephants”—labor unions for the SPD and the churches for the CDU—have steadily eroded. The unattached segment of the electorate has correspondingly increased and found new, if temporary, political homes in the Greens, the Left Party, and now on the right, the AfD. Additional voters have joined the growing ranks of non-voters.
Thus far the SPD has incurred more damage from this development than the CDU. Since the 1980s both the Greens and the Left Party have severely weakened the SPD to the point where it is difficult to consider it a Volkspartei. Until recently the CDU has suffered less damage. Will the AfD do to the CDU what the Greens and Left Party have already done to the SPD?
The AfD electorate at these elections was larger than that of previous far-right parties such as the NPD and DVU. Survey data found that protest was the dominant motive. It was certainly not economic. Over two-thirds of AfD voters on March 13 described their personal economic condition as “good.” The AfD is a single issue party with no discernible second act. Again survey data reveal some potential limits on the party’s growth. Over 60 percent of AfD voters stated that they would have voted for Seehofer’s CSU if it had been on the ballot.
As a protest party the AfD is dependent on public reaction to Merkel’s policies. If the refugee issue created this surge, changes in policy could end, if not reverse, it. In short, to a large extent the fate of the party depends on how Merkel handles the refugee issue moving forward. It appears she got the message long before Sunday. She has shown a capacity to pivot before as shown in the Energie Wende and it appears that she is well underway to a “Refugee Wende.” As the number of refugees declines, so will the AfD’s poll numbers.
The larger questions of the future of the party system will remain. Stable governments will become more difficult to construct. But among European democracies there are few that can match Germany’s resources.
Dr. David Conradt is a Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University.