Last weekend regional elections took place in three German states: Rheinland-Pfalz, Sachsen-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg. The results were damning for Germany’s two “Volksparteien”, the left of centre SPD and Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU. While both parties won a state each in the elections, they can hardly be happy with the results. The SPD won Rheinland Pfalz, with about 35 % of the vote and the CDU won Sachsen Anhalt with about 30%. Baden Württemberg (capital Stuttgart), however, was taken by the Greens, a relatively small party on a national level. The real winners of the election were the AfD (Alternative for Germany) a controversial right-wing populist party perhaps most comparable to UKIP in the UK or the Front National in France.
Founded only three years ago, the AfD has struck a chord with many German voters, gaining large media presence with its anti-refugee stance especially. The extent of its growth became clear during these local elections, as it won over 10% of the vote in Baden Württemberg and Rheinland Pfalz and an astonishing 25% in Sachsen-Anhalt, becoming the second biggest party in the state legislature. In the process it even reduced the share of the SPD, one of the two heavyweights of German politics, to a meagre 10%.
As the results came in on Sunday and coalition talks began, all parties vowed not to form a coalition with the AfD, in an attempt to ostracise them from any sort of executive power. This is done easily in the two western states, where the more traditional parties can join forces in a variety of combinations to form coalition governments, but in Sachsen-Anhalt the case is more interesting. While the CDU won the state election, they did so with only 30% – far from enough to form a government by themselves or with a small party as coalition partner. As mentioned, the AfD took second place with 24%, while Die Linke, successor party to the communists, took third with 16%. 10% voted for the Social Democrats and the Greens and the Liberals (FDP) took about 5% each. Looking purely at the stats, a CDU-AfD coalition would make sense. They would have a clear majority and both parties are classified as right wing (albeit to varying degrees). A conservative-far left coalition is hard to imagine, whilst a CDU-SPD-Green coalition would be potentially unstable.
A CDU-AfD coalition is out of the question for the conservatives, who do not want to be associated with the rightwing populist movement in any way. In fact, none of the other parties want to be associated with them. History, however, has often shown that the best way to get rid of a small and/or protest party is simply to let them govern.
Let’s look at some recent examples. After the general election of 2010 in the United Kingdom yielded no clear winner, the Liberal Democrat party became kingmaker. They had had one of their party’s greatest ever election results, mainly because of public disillusion with the two major parties, and decided to enter government as the minority partner in a coalition with the Conservatives under David Cameron. Five years after this great result, years spent in government, the LibDems suffered one of their worst ever results in the election of 2015, being rendered almost irrelevant for at least another four years.
In the Czech Republic, the movement “Veci Verejne” (Public Affairs) achieved 10.8% and 24 seats of the vote in 2010, the first time they had contested an election on a national scale. They joined a centre-right coalition. Three years later, they did not even contest the election and disappeared completely from the political spectrum after only three years in the spotlight.
Another example of a protest party losing popularity after forming a government is the higher profile Greek Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras. The party romped to a decisive election victory in January 2015 taking 2,25 million votes. Just eight months later, in the September snap election, the party took 300.000 votes less, whilst also losing an important and influential leader in Yanis Varoufakis, who resigned and formed a new party. Opinion polls from February 2016 show Syriza polling at 23-27%, a whole ten percent less than they had in the election six months ago.
Finally an example from Germany itself, namely the FDP. It occupies a similar position on the political spectrum as the British LibDems, and has been a favoured coalition partner of both the Social Democrats and the Conservatives. Usually gaining around or just under 10% of the vote in German elections, it was in government three times since the reunification of Germany in 1990. After each legislative period in government it’s support has fallen. This phenomenon culminated in 2013, when after four years in government with the CDU and a record 14.6% share of the vote in 2009, it failed to win any seats in the general election of 2013, taking less than five percent of the vote.
So why are protest parties and smaller parties so much more popular when they’re in opposition? The likely answer is that it is precisely because of that that they can achieve popularity in the first place. Opposition allows parties to simply criticise everything the see fit to criticise, populist parties such as the AfD and UKIP even more so, for they play on the public‘s hopes, but also their fears. In government however, especially as junior partners, these parties can rarely turn rhetoric into action, losing their large support as quickly as they gained it.
So perhaps the best way to make the AfD irrelevant in German politics is to simply let them govern.