6 takeaways from AfD’s massive gains in Bavaria and Hesse regional elections

By Dénes Albert
11 Min Read

While the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Socialists (CSU) received the most votes in the regional elections of Hesse and Bavaria, the headline news story across Germany is the Alternative for Germany’s (AFD) overperformance in both states. The outcome of the election is reverberating throughout Germany, with implications for the federal level as well. On the issues of immigration, the economy, and green energy, the AfD is pulling ahead, while the ruling left-liberals will be left searching for answers after an election shellacking.

Here are six takeaways from the election results and what they could mean for the future political landscape of the country.

AfD may be stronger than the polls say

With both Bavaria and Hesse combined, the AfD party will now have 70 seats, a 50 percent increase compared to its previous 2018 elections. The party actually did better than the polls said it would, which had already painted a rosy picture for the anti-sanctions, anti-immigration party.

For example, AfD was polling at around 16 percent in Hesse, but actually ended up in second at 18.4 percent, while in Bavaria the AfD is on par with the Greens and Free Voters, where it earned 15.8 percent, making it the third-largest party.

The party has for years had a stable level of support at around 10 to 12 percent, but in the last year, it has soared in the polls up to 23 percent and continues to hover at 21 percent.

Many new potential AfD voters may be “shy” voters who are afraid to express their support to pollsters, meaning that pollsters may not be capturing the full picture. The party is, after all, facing a potential ban, openly mocked and attacked by the political and journalistic establishment, and supporters of the party along with politicians have been physically assaulted in the past.

Furthermore, with the AfD’s success in local elections, it may begin to “normalize” the party in the eyes of voters, which could contribute to more open support for the party — and even a jump in the polls — going into the future.

Germans are fed up with mass migration

In the run-up to the elections, Remix News reported a new groundbreaking poll showing a huge majority of Germans wanted fewer migrants and also saw migrants bringing fewer advantages than disadvantages.

If we look at the polling surrounding these specific elections, it only cements the reality that Germans are remarkably shifting against mass immigration.

For example, in Bavaria, immigration was rated as the second most important factor by voters, behind the economy, with 48 percent of all respondents telling Infratest dimap that they “welcomed” that the AfD wanted to limit the number of foreigners and refugees more strongly. In Hesse, 42 percent backed the AfD’s anti-immigration policies. In Hesse, the issue of immigration was decisive for 18 percent of voters in terms of their vote, meaning that this was their number one issue.

This polling data shows the massive disconnect between the left-liberal mainstream that promotes mass immigration in the media and culture and the actual sentiment of the German people.

The AfD’s Robert Lambrou, who was second on his party’s election list in Hesse, leaned heavily into the issue of migration during the campaign. Notably, he not only called for faster deportations but stated that skilled legal immigrants should only be accepted in exceptional circumstances and then only from “neighboring countries that are culturally close to Germany.”

AfD rises in the west

The AfD has been historically strong in the east of the country, but with a result of over 18 percent in Hesse, it marks the first major breakthrough in the west of the country. The results come as the AfD recently broke the 20 percent mark in wealthy Baden-Württemberg, the first time it has achieved such a result in a western state.

Notably, the German mainstream is now noting that the AfD’s rise in two Western states is not a fluke or a mere protest vote, with Taggeschau writing:

To interpret the strong results in both states as just a protest election would be too short-sighted. More and more people are voting for the AfD out of conviction. The current situation benefits the party: Asylum and refugee policy concerns many people, and support for a more restrictive migration policy is growing, as data from Infratest dimap shows. At the same time, fewer and fewer voters in both states have a problem with voting for a party that is partly right-wing extremist. And it is not just in migration policy that it is increasingly being given authority: more people are also placing their hope in the far-right party when it comes to the issues of internal security, the economy and social justice.

Such an acknowledgment from the state-run Tagesschau regarding the AfD is big news all in itself.

Massive blow to the traffic-light government

Besides the AfD, the other big outcome was how incredibly poorly Germany’s left-liberal government performed in the election. Now, the political fallout could be felt for months and even years.

For starters, the business liberals of the Free Democrats (FDP) were completely wiped out in Bavaria and failed to obtain the 5 percent needed to enter parliament. In Hesse, they barely managed to squeak by scoring exactly 5 percent. It follows a long string of election losses for the party, which has been accused of abandoning many of its principles in its coalition alliance at the federal level. The party is now suffering the consequences, with the results likely sending party leadership scrambling to avert all-out disaster. The FDP, which has already criticized its coalition partners at the federal level, will undoubtedly be seeking out a more independent path in the future, which could lead to a serious governing crisis for Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

However, the SPD and Greens also fared poorly, particularly the SPD, which earned an abysmal 8 percent in Bavaria and only 15.1 percent in Hesse, both historic lows. The Greens earned 14 percent in both Bavaria and Hesse, a substantial drop in both instances from their previous election results.

There is in all likelihood trouble ahead for this coalition, and the far-left Interior Minister Nancy Faeser could still lose her job over her party’s election debacle in Hesse, although there are currently denials from top party brass that this is a possibility post-election.

The CDU could shift further right

Of course, the CDU is also taking note of the AfD’s rise. The CSU, the sister party of the CDU, saw 100,000 of its voters shift to the AfD in Bavaria. In short, the AfD could quickly cut into the CDU’s base, especially over the issue of immigration.

According to German state-run media outlet Tagesschau, it also sees the CDU potentially shifting its stance over the issue, writing: “These results may well lead to a shift in the policies of the mainstream conservative CDU towards a stricter stance on migration. The votes — and the preceding campaign largely focused on national rather than regional issues — may also force the government to revisit its policy of phasing out fossil fuels.”

Will anything change?

Despite the AfD’s surge and a mass rejection of the left, the two elections are notable for another key reason. In both Bavaria and Hesse, both governing coalitions survived. In Bavaria, the CSU can continue governing with the Free Voters, and in Hesse, the CDU could form a theoretical coalition with the Greens once again. In other words, the status quo was maintained.

The AfD may have seen a serious boost in both states, but for now, all parties have vowed to never work with the party. In the short term, the AfD is working to create the conditions that make it increasingly difficult for ruling parties to form status quo coalitions. In the long term, it sees the only viable path to power through a coalition with the CDU. The big question mark is if and when that will ever happen.

Many voters may agree with the AfD’s positions on a range of issues, but many are mentally conditioned to never consider voting for the party. The CDU and other parties are aware of this and will continue to hone their message to keep their voters from straying too far away, even if they plan to maintain the status quo once they achieve power.

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