The radical right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) made large gains in the Brandenburg and Saxony state elections on 1 September. Manès Weisskircher highlights five takeaways from the elections, noting that while the AfD captured the headlines, there were several other important developments.

International media coverage has paid a lot of attention to the elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, two states in Germany’s east. Now that the votes have been counted, here are five things to know about what happened.

  1. The results

The three parties that were for a long time the most popular ones in the east of Germany – the centre-right CDU, the left-wing Die Linke, and the centre-left SPD – all received record lows in both states. Correspondingly, the reigning government coalitions have been clearly voted out of office: Neither the left-wing coalition of SPD and Die Linke in Brandenburg nor the (not so) ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU and SPD in Saxony survived Sunday’s vote. Only the party branches of the respective regional governors – Dietmar Woidke’s SPD in Brandenburg and especially Michael Kretschmer’s CDU in Saxony – avoided an evening of humiliation as they managed to keep losses smaller than some observers had expected. Both Woidke and Kretschmer will be able to keep their offices, but with new, or additional, coalition partners needed.

The Greens, traditionally weak in the east, celebrated record results in both states. Eager to govern, they hope to join new coalition governments. Die Linke, which used to be a catch-all party in the east, faced electoral disaster – contributing to the party’s crisis. In stark contrast, the radical right AfD made record gains in both regions. Strikingly, the Saxony AfD branch attracted more voters than the left-wing parties Die Linke, the Greens, and SPD combined. The liberal FDP, typically stronger in the west, again failed to enter both regional legislatures. In both states, turnout has significantly increased – both the AfD and the Saxony CDU were able to mobilise former non-voters.

  1. Key political cleavages: East vs. west and more

Some 30 years after ‘reunification,’ differences between the neue Bundesländer (new federal states) in the former socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east and the alte Bundesländer (old federal states) in the west continue to exist. Polls show that majorities in both Brandenburg and Saxony still feel that eastern Germans are often only ‘second-class citizens.’

Inequalities not only concern lower levels of income and wealth and a higher dissatisfaction with ‘real-existing democracy’ in the east. Other examples are the underrepresentation of administrative federal agencies or universities funded by the German Excellence Initiative. The economist Branko Milanović points to football as a telling marker of regional inequality: Only two out of the 18 teams in Germany’s top league are from the east.

The cleavage between the east and the west is not a fringe issue, only of concern to radical parties. Recently, Petra Köpping, a social democratic minister in Saxony running for leadership of the national SPD, has gained much attention with a book titled ‘First integrate us!’ – quoting encounters with anti-immigrant voters – in which she calls for a renewed national focus on the east-west divide. Beyond party lines, key politicians from the east agree on specific issues: For example, all regional governors in the east – no matter from which party – called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia. Such demands respond to objective problems: From 2013 to 2018, trade between Saxony and Russia sank by more than 70 percent.

Still, the ‘east’ is obviously not a homogenous block. Important variations in electoral behaviour exist: In Brandenburg the SPD has traditionally been strong, while in Saxony the CDU has been the dominant force. This time younger voters in both regions showed stronger support for the Greens and, importantly, the AfD, while more elderly voters supported the traditional centrist parties. Had only men voted, the AfD would have won both elections, highlighting a considerable gender gap in voting behaviour. Moreover, the division between centre and periphery also matters strongly: To illustrate, the AfD has been comparatively ‘weak’ in Saxony’s biggest city Leipzig (17.3%) and its capital Dresden (20.7%), while in peripheral Görlitz, Germany’s easternmost town, the party received a plurality of votes (37.8%).

  1. It’s also the environment, stupid?

For several months, environmental concerns, and especially the issue of global warming, have shaped the German public debate. The climate issue was also important during the campaigns.

At the beginning of 2019, a commission of Germany’s national government agreed to phase out coal mining by 2038 in order to reduce CO2 emissions. In major cities such as Brandenburg’s Potsdam or Saxony’s Dresden and Leipzig, Fridays for Future protests demanded an earlier end to coal extraction. In Lusatia (Lausitz), a key area of brown coal mining that is part of both Brandenburg and Saxony, many citizens have rejected the planned closure of coal pits, fearing economic problems. Memories of the past have come to the fore: In the 1990s, many pits were closed, which contributed to the stark social problems during this decade of deindustrialisation in the east. While the German government also plans to invest billions of euros to create new jobs, what this money will be spent on (and where) is far from clear.

As part of the electoral campaigns, many AfD politicians denied, or at least strongly put into doubt, the role of human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. Beyond coal, wind energy has also been an important issue. In Saxony, the reigning governor Kretschmer has been very cautious in supporting the expansion of wind turbines, fearing NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition. Environmental politics, and opposition to it, will continue to shape not only German national, but also regional politics – including future coalition negotiations in both states.

  1. The strength of the AfD

It was of no surprise to anyone that the AfD established itself as the main opposition party in both states on Sunday. The 27.5% in Saxony was the highest result the party had ever received in any regional election. Even though such comparisons make only limited sense, AfD support in both states is even higher than at the general election in 2017 and the EP election in 2019.

Before the AfD, other far-right parties had already been part of the regional legislatures of Brandenburg (DVU) and Saxony (NPD). A combination of economic hardship, dissatisfaction with politics, limited experiences with immigration, but significant experience with emigration helps to understand the strength of the radical right in many parts of the east.

During this summer’s campaigns, the AfD regularly focused on inequalities between the east and the west. Especially in Brandenburg, the AfD also instrumentalised the memory of the ‘peaceful revolution’ and the 1989 protests against the government of the GDR. In doing so, AfD politicians often dangerously equated the political culture of contemporary Germany with the repressive one-party state that was the GDR. Previously, the protestors of the Dresden-based far-right PEGIDA group have followed a similar strategy, organising ‘Monday demonstrations’ and chanting the slogan ‘We are the people’ (‘Wir sind das Volk’).

Many observers perceive the eastern AfD branches as more radical than the western ones, fearing that Sunday’s results have strengthened extreme forces organised as Der Flügel (‘the wing’). And indeed, many AfD members in the east, such as Brandenburg party leader Andreas Kalbitz, have a long history of activism among extreme right circles. However, and hardly a reason for less concern, by now ideological differences between the AfD in the east and the west should not be overstated. ‘Nativism’ – what Cas Mudde defines as ‘xenophobic nationalism’ – has long been a feature of the AfD mainstream all across Germany.

  1. What’s coming next

The ‘happiest loser’ was Saxony’s regional governor Michael Kretschmer, who can claim personal success. He only came to office two years ago: His predecessor resigned after the German national election of 2017, when the AfD attracted more votes (27.0%) than the CDU (26.9%) in Saxony. This time Kretschmer, making a constantly exhausted and overworked impression, successfully managed to keep a very strong AfD at bay. A coalition with the Greens and the SPD could mark Saxony’s first-ever three-party coalition – should this corporation create conflict, the AfD will try to present itself as a superior coalition partner to CDU right-wingers. Brandenburg’s SPD governor Woidke will also require two partners for a government coalition.

Soon, another state in Germany’s east will go to the polls. On 27 October, a left-wing three-party coalition in Thuringia, and the only regional government under the leadership of Die Linke, hopes to narrowly keep its majority. Only two weeks later, on 9 November, Germans will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the opening of the border between the GDR and West Germany, which marks the beginning of the end of the division of Germany. At least until then, the inequalities that continue to exist between both ‘parts’ of Germany can be expected to be a strong part of the national public debate.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image: Dresden, Credit: Alta Alteo (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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About the author

Manès Weisskircher – TU Dresden
Manès Weisskircher is a researcher at TU Dresden (MIDEM — Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy). He holds a PhD from the European University Institute. His research interests include comparative politics and political sociology. He tweets @ManesWeissk

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