Otto von Bismarck once quipped that “if the world ends, I’m going to Mecklenburg: everything happens there fifty years later.” Long known as something of a backwater, it’s a rare thing indeed that Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (MV) would come to international attention. Yet stunning results in its state election on September 4th have shone a spotlight on the region, even if this is undoubtedly more for its possible national implications than a new found interest in the economically depressed state.
With 20.8 percent of the vote, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) scored the highest percentage for a party to the right of the CDU/CSU in any election in Germany’s post-war history. Meanwhile all the established parties were clear election losers: the CDU dropped four percentage points, and at 19 percent, it was its worst performance in a state election in recent memory; the Greens dropped nearly four percent from the previous election in MV and are now out of parliament, as is the FDP; the Linke, which once ruled the state in coalition with the SPD, suffered its worst showing ever in MV at 13.2 percent; and the SPD, although formally the “winner” (i.e., it will head the next government, either in coalition with the Linke or with the CDU), dropped to 30.6 percent. Post-election analysis showed that the AfD took away a substantial number of votes from all the parties – some 15,000 from the SPD, 22,000 from the CDU, 3,000 from the Greens, and 16,000 from the Linke. Combined with its luring away a natural constituency of NPD voters (20,000) and a substantial number of voters who had not voted in the previous election (55,000), the AfD was able to catapult itself into second place in the election and will become a noisy opposition in the Landtag with 18 seats.
Opinion polls revealed that unemployment and refugees/immigration were the top two issues to voters. The latter seems curious on the surface because only around four percent of MV’s population is foreign born, and far fewer are recent refugees. Some have suggested that this is because of GDR legacies, where there were few immigrants (and those few were largely hidden from view) and there was no multiculturalism to speak of. But the more obvious explanation – that the vote simply reflects a rejection of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy – was one quickly seized upon by media and political analysts.
However, dig a little deeper on why, and among whom, her refugee policy might generate opposition and it seems that fear of immigrants and “otherness” is concentrated among those groups – blue-collar workers, the unemployed, less educated, and middle-aged and older men – most threatened culturally and economically by globalization, precisely those groups in MV who voted strongly for the AfD. This is hardly an MV or German phenomenon, however: a “demographic of the fearful” seems to have cut across all liberal democracies, from Trumpism in the US to Brexiters in the UK.
So what is the take away for Germany’s political parties? Two seem especially affected – the CDU/CSU (obviously) and the Linke (a little less obviously). The AfD is threatening Franz Josef Strauss’ famous dictum that the Union can never permit a party on its right flank to succeed. Consequently there are those in the Union calling for a radical change in the Chancellor’s tone and policy on refugees, and even some rumblings about a possible change in leadership. The latter seems unlikely, given the lack of credible challengers to Merkel and her still high (if dropping) poll numbers. As for the former, Merkel almost never gives significant ground on issues tied to her basic convictions; yet it is probable that she will find better, more creative ways to communicate her message.
For the Linke on the other hand the AfD represents a more existential threat. Although it was never a pure protest party, the Linke has long depended on a certain reservoir of protest voters, and its natural constituency of blue-collar workers and the unemployed seem to have deserted the party in MV. Add to this the fact that the Linke has become in many ways an establishment party – Stinknormal – and it becomes clear that the AfD is becoming the new populist, anti-establishment kid on the block. Even if fishing in the waters of anti-immigrant sentiment (as Sarah Wagenknecht recently did, in an echo of her husband Oskar Lafontaine’s fishing trip many years ago; see) is not a serious option for the party, it urgently needs a fresh approach in dealing with its new populist challenger.
Prof. Jonathan Olsen is Professor of Government and Chair of the Department of History and Government at Texas Woman’s University.