In two German state elections that are seen as a bellwether of the national mood, the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, surged while the three parties that make up the country’s federal coalition government suffered significant losses.
Conservative forces won clear victories in both the states of Bavaria and Hesse. In Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a sister-party to the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is projected to win 36.6 percent of the vote, slightly lower than the party’s result in the last state election in 2018. In Hesse, the CDU is set to win 34.6 percent of the vote.
But the biggest winner of the night was arguably the AfD, a party that has become increasingly extreme since its founding in 2013. The AfD is projected to come in second place in both Bavaria and Hesse, a historic win for the party.
The AfD’s strong performance outside its traditional bastion in the states of the former East Germany suggests the party has successfully expanded its base of support. This development has already sparked a renewed flurry of soul-searching among leaders of mainstream parties.
“The increased performance of the AfD can only worry every democrat in this country,” Ricarda Lang, a co-leader of the Greens, said on public television. “I would like to see us move away from finger-pointing and for every democratic party to now consider what we can do to make [the election results] look different again in the future.”
In both Bavaria and Hesse, the three parties that make up German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition — the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — all saw their support drop. That outcome demonstrated widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government at a time of growing economic and social insecurity.
The German economy has been stuck in an extended rut, precipitated in part by the surge in energy prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers entering Germany this year and a growing shortage of affordable housing has also fueled voter dissatisfaction.
The AfD was clearly able to capitalize on this discontent. Robert Lambrou, the AfD’s parliamentary group leader in Hesse, where the party was projected to win 18.5 percent of the vote, called the party’s performance in the state “breathtaking.” Many people, he added, “feel that a change in policy is needed. We have high inflation, high energy prices, high rents. We have completely unchecked mass immigration. There is a lot to be done here.”
In Bavaria, the AfD was projected to win 15.7 percent of the vote, just ahead of the Free Voters, a right-wing upstart party that governs in coalition with the CSU in the state.
Germany’s federal ruling coalition government already has often been beset by infighting, particularly between the Greens and the FDP — parties that are in many ways ideological opposites. The poor outcome for coalition parties may well make the discord worse, as each party seeks to reinforce its base of support.
In Hesse, a former SPD stronghold, the Social Democrats suffered an embarrassing defeat, winning just 15.1 percent of the vote, according to projections. The loss is all the more stinging for the party because its candidate in the state is Scholz’s federal interior minister, Nancy Faeser, who in a speech called the result “very disappointing.”
With such a poor result, many are now speculating on whether Faeser will be able to keep her job as interior minister. Chancellor Scholz is likely to face pressure to make sweeping changes in order to reverse the fortunes of his party and coalition.
The election outcome was particularly disastrous for the FDP, a junior partner in Scholz’s coalition. The party won just 2.9 percent of the vote in Bavaria and 5 percent of the vote in Hesse, according to projections. The party is in danger of crashing out of both state parliaments if it fails to meet the required 5 percent hurdle.
For the leaders of Germany’s federal coalition government, the election outcome has already raised loud alarm bells. The only question is whether there’s enough unity within the coalition to turn the tide.
“Of course, we are not deaf and blind,” SPD Secretary-General Kevin Kühnert said on German public television after the initial election results came in. “All of us together in this coalition should recognize the signals.”