While political parties promoting national liberal, conservative and Euro-sceptic positions have experienced a rise in nearly all EU member states over the past years, Germany appeared to be the last safe-haven left. However, this German exception seems to be over. Since last September the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) has entered three regional parliaments within two weeks, living up to its success in this year’s European elections.
Supported by around 10 per cent of the voters, the AfD poses a problem to the Christian Democratic Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) and, especially, to the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). They have to fear the establishment of a party which may challenge their dominance over Germany’s political right.
While national, liberal and conservative positions are not new to German politics, this space has mainly been covered by the CDU/CSU and FDP. Whereas national liberal and conservative parties had been an inherent part of the German party system during the imperial period and the Weimar Republic, the integration strategy of the CDU/CSU transformed German politics after World War II. By combining liberalism, conservatism and Christian democracy, the CDU/CSU had been successful in leaving only a small niche for potential competitors on the political right. This space was further reduced by the FDP, integrating national and social liberalism within the same party for the first time in German history.
The numerous attempts to establish an explicitly national liberal and conservative party were thus pushed towards the extreme right in order to extend their electoral appeal. Their opening towards right-wing extremism discredited these parties, leading to their electoral marginalization.
Still, the CDU/CSU and the FDP opened up a policy space on the political right. On the one hand, the CDU and CSU have abandoned traditional positions on family, defence, the environment and social policy, seeking to compete with the SPD and the Greens for young, social-culturally progressive and female voters. On the other hand, the disastrous performance of the FDP during its time as the CDU/CSU’s coalitional partner (from 2009 to 2013) led to the party’s decline. This enabled potential competitors on the political right to campaign on issues beyond anti-immigration and anti-Islamism.
The AfD thrived in this space when it emerged as a reaction to the government’s handling of the European financial crisis. Rejecting bailouts for EU member states in particular, and the concept of a European common currency in general, a group of German economists and businessmen created the AfD in February 2013, gaining 4.8 per cent of the votes in the 2013 federal election. While failing to enter parliament, this has been the best performance of a party running for the first time in a German federal election since 1957. Whereas this performance and the 7.1 per cent in the 2014 European elections can be explained by the party’s anti-EU campaign, the AfD quickly extended its programmatic appeal by incorporating positions previously abandoned by the CDU/CSU.
Campaigning with conservative and national liberal positions on domestic, social and family policy, they have fared better in regional elections. Within two weeks the AfD received 9.7 per cent of the votes in Saxony, 10.2 per cent in Thuringia and 12.2 per cent in Brandenburg. Much of their success came from mobilizing former CDU and FDP voters. While all parties lost voters to the AfD, CDU and FDP lost substantially more than the SPD, Left Party and Greens together, with the largest number of voters leaving the CDU for the AfD.
In sum, the AfD is more than a protest or single-issue party that have come up and subsequently vanished from time-to-time in German regional elections. My claim here is that it now occupies an ideological space on the political right abandoned by the CDU/CSU and FDP. The latter will have to find a response to the rise of the AfD for two reasons. First, the AfD risks jeopardizing the CDU/CSU’s pivotal role in coalition formation. And second, the AfD threatens the political existence of the FDP which has lost dramatically since the 2013 federal election.
If the AfD succeeds in keeping its ranks closed, it has the potential to become an established force in German politics, thereby transforming the party system and putting an end to German exceptionalism.