Monday, March 14, 2016

Populist AfD success in German state elections: what not to worry about - and what to worry about

From our It's not a tectonic shift series.

You will hear and read a lot about the success of Germany's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) in the three state elections of 13 March 2016.

Many of the comments will attribute the success of the "populist right" AfD to the refugee crisis and the handling, or mishandling, of the influx of refugees by Chancellor Merkel. While dissatisfaction with the alleged "open border" policies of the chancellor in 2015 did play a role in voters' decisions, it is not that straightforward.
In the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt, AfD received 24.2% of the vote but the number of voters who said refugee policies were important to their decision stood at 62%, which is the lowest value among all three states.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, AfD received 12.6% but 62% of voters said refugee policies were an important factor, and in Baden-Wuerttemberg, AfD has 15.1% (65% of voters said refugee policies were an important factor).

How much of the AfD success comes as a "protest vote"? Around 75% of eligible voters attributed the AfD success to the "protest" factor in this 2015 poll.
Some 45% of AfD voters themselves stated "protest" was their decisive factor, while 53% said the political program of the party was.

History, and state vs. federal elections
Historically, "grand coalitions" of the Christian democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social democrats (SPD) have always seen an increase in "protest voting", for example, in 1969, the neo-Nazi NPD received 4.3% of the national votes in West Germany. While not enough for seats in the federal parliament, the NPD did get enough votes in recent elections to win seats in some former East German states.
Using the only long term data, for the NPD, we can see that in the vast majority of federal elections their share of the vote went down by at least 30%, generally by 50% or more, which correlates quite nicely with the "protest vote" figures above.

The strength of the AfD
The long term observation for the NPD may or may not hold true for the AfD, largely because the AfD obtained significantly higher shares of the vote than the outright neo-Nazi NPD. Most importantly, though, the AfD managed to obtain two "direct" seats in Baden-Wuerttemberg. This means, AfD candidates beat candidates of the long established parties in head on majority decision contests in two electoral districts.
Only detailed investigation of the reasons and the demographics in those districts will indicate how dangerous the AfD might be in the 2017 federal election.

Losses of the CDU and the SPD
The conservative CDU lost its position as the largest party to the Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the SPD lost big in Baden-Wurttemberg (12.7%) and Sachsen-Anhalt (10.6%) but had a strong showing in Rhineland-Palatinate (36.2%).
Prior to the AfD success, the CDU/CSU has been extremely good at playing a "good cop - bad cop" game that ensured even seriously right-wing voters felt at home in the party. While this has not worked very well in the current elections, the "bad cop" faction of Bavaria is already trying to make hay by attacking chancellor Merkel.
The SPD is called a lost cause by some for good reasons. First, the moderate German left is split between SPD and Die Linke. Yes, the blogster calls Die Linke "moderate left" - if you want a detailed explanation, send an email. Second, "grand coalitions" have not been good for the SPD, and third, the savage welfare cuts leading to the basic means tested Hartz IV and cuts to retirement and other services, have alienated enough voters to have a lasting effect. The recently introduced SPD supported minimum wage did not change that. People go hungry in Germany, too.

Age and sex
AfD voters are much more often male than female, and the age distribution is different from that of CDU and SPD voters. The latter have their highest share of voters among older people (60+), while the AfD is strong in the 30-40 and 40-50 age groups.
Correction of a decades long "shift to the left"?
Some have argued that Germany had moved towards the left for a couple of decades, and that it is currently seeing a sort of compensation represented by the AfD.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Inequality has gone up for at least two decades, basic means tested Hartz IV is - "radical trigger warning" - a demeaning, discouraging deterrent to seeking assistance. 

Should you be worried?
The "social climate" in Germany has become colder, but compared to many of its neighbors, it is not that bad. Much will depend on how the incumbent parties and their officials handle the new landscape. The blogster is looking forward to reports of some AfD officials getting into hot water, taking the shine off the new party. Analysis of the two "direct" seats should tell us how worried we should be. Given that violence still is largely male and young, the age and sex distribution is somewhat of a concern. The main worry should be a shift of the CDU/CSU to AfD positions.

No tectonic shift or political earthquake has occurred.

[Update 3/14/2016] The Bavarian state government (run by the conservative CSU) is well on its way to "AfD light", if you consider this report. The Bavarian state government demanded to cut the 143 Euros/month cash allowance for refugees when their shelter offers free WiFi. Since the government asked to reduce the allowance by 36 Euros/month for all residents, including those who do not have a smart phone, the volunteer operators of the service shut it down last Friday.

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