Why is the AfD so strong in Eastern Germany?

The right-wing populist AfD has made major gains in elections in the east German states of Saxony and Brandenburg, becoming the second-strongest party in the two state parliaments. Commentators speculate on the reasons for its success.

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Český rozhlas (CZ) /

AfD fuelling nostalgia for the good old days

The AfD owes its new strength to an insidious strategy, public broadcaster Český rozhlas points out:

“Basically this strategy consists of portraying the political unification of West and East Germany as a complete failure. Many East Germans have been tempted by this new, alternative viewpoint. They believe the new party will defend their interests. The result is that the barriers between East and West Germans will persist. And the AfD is doing its best to reinforce these barriers, for example by encouraging distrust in national media and established political institutions. In the same way it seeks to awaken nostalgic memories of the purported stability in the GDR before 1989. This strategy won it the support of one in four voters.”

Expresso (PT) /

ECB also responsible for success

Another reason for the AfD's strong showing in the East is the ECB's monetary policy, Expresso believes:

“One of the main reasons why East Germans feel like second-class citizens is the rise in house and rental prices. ... With lower incomes and savings than West German citizens, they suffer because they are not able to prosper by investing in the real estate market, which feeds on the cheap loans that result from the ECB's current monetary policy. Instead they're forced to pay high rents that are used to fund West German investment in the real estate market. Too little has been said up to now about the impact of zero or negative interest rates on social cohesion and political stability.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

A hands-on approach needed from politicians

Mathias Müller von Blumencron, editor-in-chief of Der Tagesspiegel, points out that the problems in East and West Germany are in fact very similar:

“The right-wing populist movement is not an Eastern German phenomenon but rather a rebellion against the radical changes that have been taking place in our society for a long time that is particularly successful in the East. ... This is the revenge for policies which for years let things like globalisation, digitalisation and migration simply happen, instead of controlling them. Too many people are left cold by laissez-faire and dilly-dallying. The fact is, however, that politicians must take a more offensive and targeted approach to creating a forward-looking society: we need more investments in the regions that have been left behind, more commitment to schools, and more progress through widespread digitalisation.”

Daily Sabah (TR) /

AfD might lose its appeal in government

The traditional parties rivals are wasting their time trying to exclude the AfD, Daily Sabah believes:

“While the CDU as of now keeps identifying the AfD as a far-right populist party and denies coalition partnership as a result, with every passing day doing so gets harder. If the AfD continues to increase its votes in the provinces, it will get the chance to become a government partner at the provincial level as is the case in Italy and Austria. In certain provinces, forming the government with the AfD could become the only option. Expulsion of the AfD makes it stronger. Maybe if it shoulders the responsibility of government, the AfD might lose its charm.”

El País (ES) /

Wait for state governments to be formed

It's too early to draw proper conclusions about the state elections in Germany, El País writes:

“It would be just as erroneous to conclude that the traditional parties have fended off the populist threat as it would be to conclude that the far right will continue to widen its electoral base inexorably in Germany. The question now is what form the respective governments will take and what day-to-day politics in these two states will be like. ... Only once we know this we will be able to interpret Sunday's elections as a turning point in Germany or as the completion of another stage in the AfD's rise to power.”

Politiken (DK) /

Even strong countries need help sometimes

After the major effort of completing the process of reunification Germany could use a helping hand, Politiken believes:

“Without hesitation or apprehension the people and politicians of Germany summoned all their courage and willpower and tied their country's fate to that of Europe. ... Germany still stands for the values of democracy and the rule of law. ... Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that we can no longer lean back and depend on Germany to guarante democracy, freedom and economic stability. ... Denmark and the other EU nations should remember that Germany needs our help, too.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

German "turnaround" as a campaign topic

Only on the surface did things turn out alright on Sunday, writes La Repubblica's Berlin correspondent Tonia Mastrobuoni:

“The nightmare scenario of the AfD becoming the top party in two former GDR states and hurting the Merkel government has been averted. ... But in Saxony and Brandenburg more than a quarter of the electorate gave the party that made fear, nationalism and xenophobia the main instrument of its election campaign their vote. And it continues to lure the votes of those who see themselves as the losers of the reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not for nothing was the [AfD's] slogan in Saxony 'Wende 2.0', a clear reference to the turnaround that put an end to the communist regime in Germany - implying that it has failed.”

Der Standard (AT) /

Frustration boiling over in the East

Der Standard explains why the AfD is so strong in East Germany:

“There, the people feel even less bound to this or that party than they do in the West. In the past those who wanted to protest voted for the Left Party. But that party has now long been part of government, meaning part of the establishment. So discontented voters are moving on to the AfD, which addresses their concerns. And that's just what it skillfully did in this election by implying that 30 years after 1989 a new revolution is necessary to free the people from the yoke of the CDU and SPD. What's more, it promises to be the true representative of the people, and to stand by those who aren't ready for more changes. Because the lives of many in the East changed radically after 1989 - not always for the better.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Politicians need to show willingness to listen

The AfD isn't about to disappear, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung predicts:

“For the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg, these election results are a temporary reprieve. But anyone who celebrates them as if they were a huge victory is just one step closer to the next defeat. According to one survey, 99 percent of AfD voters in Brandenburg - and more than 50 percent even among those who vote for other parties - believe the AfD simply says what the other parties are afraid to say. That's a key to the party's success - and to the fight against it. If the CDU and SPD don't give people the feeling that they can openly talk about the problems at hand, they'll continue to lose ground.”

El Periódico de Catalunya (ES) /

Huge potential for contamination

The election results in Brandenburg and Saxony are a warning to the rest of Europe, El Periódico de Catalunya comments:

“After the first years of euphoria as a result of reunification, frustration and dissatisfaction spread across the area of the former GDR - fuelled by the unequal levels of prosperity in East and West Germany. Thus, the leftist and the centre voters have been steadily shifting towards nationalist populism, which is hostile to the political establishment of Europe, the euro and the reception of refugees. Such a program not only entails risks for the political stability of the most important country in the EU, it is also dangerous because it has a tremendous potential for contaminating other states.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Voters want politicians who get things done

To counter the AfD the established parties need to rethink their approach to politics, the Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Over the last few days [the two state premiers] Michael Kretschmer and Dietmar Woidke were able to study how to go about this. ... All of a sudden they were no longer simply the leading candidates of their parties; they put their all into the campaign. And they have themselves to thank for the fact that at the end of the day they both came out ahead. They walked, and drove, and travelled across their states as movers and shakers, never shying away from a discussion and facing up to every criticism. They came closer to the people without little party rhetoric, a lot of personality and a whole bunch of concrete issues. That's what the voters like. And that's what distinguishes these two politicians from the right-wing populists, who are good at one thing in particular: saying how bad things are.”

Tygodnik Powszechny (PL) /

Second-class citizens

Germany's reunification left much to be desired, Tygodnik Powszechny believes:

“Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the state elections have sparked a new discussion about the reunification process. The old question has come back with a vengeance: are the East Germans second-class citizens? ... Salaries in the East are still lower than in the West, (on average 2,790 euros per month in the East in 2018, compared with 3,340 euros per month in the West). And only 36 of the 500 biggest German companies have their headquarters in the East, meaning lower tax revenues. ... After the reunification the dominant cultural codes also came from the West. Many East Germans of the older generation feel that there's no room for their life experience in Germany's public discourse.”

Aktuálně.cz (CZ) /

Left behind and full of self pity

Aktuálně.cz describes the East Germans' feelings of hope and even stronger sense of disappointment:

“East Germany is not having an easy time of things. The young people have moved away, their parents have neither good jobs nor good incomes, and the pensioners live on the poverty line. Is this the promised paradise of liberal democracy for which the East Germans demonstrated 30 years ago? The feeling that they are isolated and irrelevant has grown stronger since the migration crisis. Thanks to the much discussed social welfare benefits for immigrants, many East Germans now see that their own income situation is similar to that of the refugees, that they are like refugees in their own country. Christian compassion for others has been replaced by base self-pity.”

Expressen (SE) /

Isolating the AfD won't help matters

The other parties' policy of distancing themselves from the AfD has only strengthened the right-wing populists, Expressen writes, and recommends pulling down old barriers in Germany and in Sweden:

“In several German states, as in many Swedish regions and communities, politicians have broken with the old policy of not entering into a coalition with the Left Party. Similarly, in a handful of Swedish communities the [liberal] Moderate Party and other conservative parties have started to cooperate with the Sweden Democrats. In a Europe where the old established parties are imploding and the parliaments are increasingly fragmented it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain a policy of isolation - above all at the local and regional levels.”