5 September 2016

Germany’s right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) delivered another shock in the local election that took place in the northern-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern yesterday. It stormed in the regional parliament as the second-largest party after securing 20.8% of the vote – behind the centre-left SPD (30.6%) but ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU (19%) and the hard-left Die Linke (13.2%). The Greens, the neo-Nazi NPD and the liberal FDP all failed to reach the 5% threshold needed to enter the regional parliament.

Predictably, the fact Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the German state where Merkel has her constituency has drawn lots of media attention. The result has been widely presented as a humiliating defeat for the Chancellor on her home turf. Leif-Erik Holm, AfD’s lead candidate in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, went so far as to declare that yesterday’s election could mark “the beginning of the end of the chancellorship of Angela Merkel.”

Some context

There is no doubt that AfD’s strong showing is bad news for Merkel, but I think some caution is warranted. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a small state with a population of around 1.6 million – less than 2% of Germany’s total population. This in itself suggests we should not read too much into yesterday’s outcome in terms of indications for next year’s federal election.

Indeed, the CDU scored its worst result ever in this state – which happens to be home to Merkel’s constituency. However, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is far from a CDU stronghold. It has been governed by the SPD since 1998, albeit in a grand coalition with the CDU since 2006. Die Linke (-5.2%) and the SPD (-5%) yesterday suffered worse losses than the CDU (-4%) in comparison with the 2011 regional election. Taken together, leftist parties lost over 14% of the vote – with the Greens failing to even make it into the regional parliament.

Where did AfD take its votes from?

The short answer is: from across the board. The secrecy of the polling booth makes it impossible to come up with precise data. However, Germany’s state broadcasters ARD and ZDF have both released polls trying to answer this very question.

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The two breakdowns differ from each other, but they appear to agree on one fundamental point: previous non-voters were the main source of votes for AfD. Bear in mind the turnout yesterday was over 10 percentage points higher than in 2011. This goes against the common wisdom that protest parties benefit from lower participation rates, as angry voters tend to be more likely to cast their ballot. AfD’s appeal among disillusioned voters is something all other German parties – not just the CDU – should reflect upon.

Incidentally, this trend goes beyond this specific regional election in Germany. A number of anti-establishment parties or movements have proven adept at connecting with previous non-voters, which is also one of the main reasons why the polls in the run-up to the EU referendum in the UK were so wrong.

More than refugees

Another reading of yesterday’s vote in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is that it was a rejection of Merkel’s refugee policy. Indeed, AfD managed to make the on-going refugee crisis a big issue of the campaign – with pledges to “end the asylum chaos” and “fight Islamism”. This happened despite Mecklenburg-Vorpommern being only marginally touched by the crisis so far. In 2015, only 23,080 asylum seekers were registered there and its refugee quota is set at 2% – the third-lowest among German states.

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But while yesterday’s election certainly reaffirmed the issue of immigration and asylum as a crucial topic in German politics, I believe other aspects also came into play. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is one of Germany’s poorest regions. It accounted for only 1.3% of Germany’s GDP in 2015, when its unemployment rate stood at 10.4% – more than double the country’s average. This is why I am inclined to see yesterday’s vote as one against the establishment more broadly, in part also fuelled by the past decade of SPD/CDU grand coalitions.

Interestingly, it was another case of a right-wing sovereignist party doing well in a traditionally left-leaning area – which reminds me, for instance, of the exceptional results recently scored by Front National in northern France.

Conclusion: Merkel down, but not out

Symbols matter in politics, and Merkel did suffer a blow in that sense – particularly at a time when her approval ratings are falling. However, I doubt the outcome of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election will play a crucial role in shaping her decision on whether to run for a fourth term next year. Overall, I believe Merkel remains likely to stand. There are currently no obvious candidates for succession within the CDU, and I cannot see her stepping aside with the refugee crisis still unresolved. That would come across as admitting defeat, or even worse, running away from the fight. Neither is in Merkel’s temper.