Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Germany’s Lurch to the Right

A combination of mass migration and economic woes is likely to crack the firewall around AfD, with wide-reaching consequences not only for Germany, but for Europe.

Credit: Lois GoBe

Germany’s political landscape is swinging decisively to the right, causing alarm and consternation within its liberal establishment. Recent state elections in Hesse and Bavaria saw a powerful performance of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD). AfD will now be the strongest opposition party in these regional parliaments. The elections also confirmed the left-liberal government's catastrophic decline in voter support. All three parties of the so-called “traffic light” coalition—the Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the Greens, and the Liberal party—suffered painful defeats. With Scholz less than two years in office, 80 percent of Germans are deeply disaffected by his government’s performance. 

The rise of AfD has the potential to alter politics in Germany fundamentally and might even—together with other developments—impact transatlantic relationships. A survey for the state broadcaster ARD in mid-October found that AfD is now polling second nationally at 23 percent. In the space of one year, support for AfD has more than doubled. Its strongholds are in the eastern states of the country, but AfD is also making massive gains in the west. The party’s co-leader Alice Weidel has therefore called it an “all-German people’s party.” 


The main reason for this upswing is the sharp increase in irregular and illegal immigration. It reminds many people of the migration crisis of 2015–2016, when Chancellor Angela Merkel made the fatal decision to keep the borders open for an uncontrolled wave of over a million migrants, mainly young men from the Middle East and Africa. Since then, violent crime has risen, and integration has failed. The majority of migrants depend on welfare benefits. 

Now history seems to repeat itself. Around half a million asylum seekers have arrived this year, and the numbers are rising. Many local authorities are at breaking point when faced with the challenges of housing and providing for these masses. Recent events with Muslim demonstrators at pro-Palestine rallies shouting anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas slogans have reinforced the skepticism about the richness of a multicultural society. Some parts of German cities have become alien parallel and even adversarial societies. Tensions are mounting, and AfD’s message of stopping the influx is resonating with more voters. 

Furthermore, Germany’s economy is ailing. Once called the industrial powerhouse of Europe, the country is in recession, and there is talk again of Germany being the “sick man of Europe.” Its GDP growth rate is at the bottom of all G7 economies this year. Add to this record high inflation and energy prices since the Ukraine war, which have together depressed real wages. All this fuels support for AfD. Remarkably, the German right-wing populists, as they are often called, are now five percentage points ahead of the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) in the DeutschlandTrend poll of ARD. Moreover, the right-wing challengers are trailing the main opposition party, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), by only six points. 

This rise of AfD is astonishing, given the multiple headwinds to the party by the liberal establishment and corporate media. AfD has been vilified as “right-wing extremists” and even denounced by the controversial Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz). This domestic spy agency is allowed to go after the opposition party, which is an anomaly in a Western democracy. The extremism charges are mainly linked to the AfD politician Björn Höcke, the regional leader in Thuringia, and his allies in other party branches. Yet the ruling government coalition is so deeply unpopular that disgruntled voters are willing to ignore the warnings and opt for the strongest possible message of disapproval. 

As in the U.S. in recent years, a new wave of populists is uprooting the traditional left-leaning and centrist establishment politics. Right-leaning and national conservative parties are on a roll in many European countries. The fight against uncontrolled immigration and crime fuels their upsurge. In Italy, Sweden and Finland, staunch right-wingers have become part of or supportive of conservative-led governments. Austria’s Freedom Party is the strongest in polls, and its leader might become the next Chancellor in Vienna. France’s Marine Le Pen is now one of the most popular politicians and is seen as a favorite for the next presidential elections. The right has become “normalized”—much to the chagrin of liberal elites. 


In view of this context, the emergence of a right-wing party in Germany could be seen as a typical development. Nevertheless, the establishment is fighting tooth and nail against this “New Normal,” to take phrase from a recent Foreign Affairs article by the liberal publicists Liana Fix (a Fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Constanze Stelzenmüller (Chair on Germany and Trans-Atlantic Relations at the Brookings Institution).

Why are the elites so upset? For many decades, Germany stood out in Europe for not having a right-wing party. The term rechts (right-wing) had become a smear word and is often used interchangeably with rechtsextrem (right-wing extremist) and even as a synonym for Nazi. Anything right was wrong and put under a taboo. Step by step, the CDU abandoned the right wing of their party during the Merkel years. The “middle ground” shifted steadily leftwards. 

Chancellor Merkel's strategic decision to move the CDU left and adopt open-border and green-liberal policies has since backfired. Dissatisfied conservatives and Euroskeptics finally broke away and founded a challenger party in 2013. Initially mainly opposed to Merkel’s policy during the Euro crisis (“there is no alternative”), the new right-of-center Alternative entered the national parliament in 2017 and has become a vocal opponent to the open-door-immigration policies and costly Green climate policies.  

The mainstream media’s and parties’ reaction has been alarmist and, at times, has amounted to panic. There have even been calls to ban AfD. Fix and Stelzenmüller call for the “protection of Germany’s democracy from its mortal foes.” This is absurd left-liberal hyperbole. AfD adheres to the democratic rules of the game—their main crime is gathering votes. In truth, it is those self-declared “democrats” in the CDU, the SPD, and some media who, by calling for a ban and suppression of an opposition party, are behaving hypocritical and contemptuous of democracy. In effect, they would exclude millions of voters from expressing discontent. 

Germany's main parties have united around a policy of exclusion, the “firewall” strategy, which shall prohibit any coalition and cooperation even at the regional and local level. The CDU is under particular pressure not to cooperate with AfD. However, there are cracks in the “firewall.” In the state parliament of Thuringia, the CDU has recently accepted that AfD votes were instrumental in passing a tax reduction law. The AfD thus raises fundamental questions for the Christian Democrats. As Fix and Stelzenmüller write: “For Germany’s conservatives, the rise of the AfD has become a flashpoint for a strategic debate about the identity of the CDU. It is also a fight over the legacy of Merkel….” 

Next year, the elections in three states in East Germany, namely Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg, will put the Christian Democrats to the test. It looks likely that AfD will come out as the strongest party by a large margin. This is going to put the CDU in an awkward position. The “firewall” doctrine might force them to choose a government or toleration agreement with the far-left party Die Linke (the former communist state party of the GDR) rather than accepting an arrangement with AfD, although AfD in many respects is ideologically closer to the former CDU conservatism. Hence, for some in the East German CDU, there is a temptation to try cooperation. 

The main obstacle to a path to power for AfD is probably their foreign policy stance. Their radical opposition to EU institutions and calls for a dissolution of the Euro block (without any realistic plan how to do this) has gained them accusations of being anti-European. AfD’s stance towards Russia has drawn even more fire. While the CDU is traditionally staunchly Atlanticist, many in the AfD exhibit open pro-Russian leanings despite Putin’s war in Ukraine. Party co-leader Tino Chrupalla caused irritation—also within the AfD—when he made an ill-advised visit to the Russian embassy in Berlin on May 9th this year, the Soviet “Day of Victory” in World War II. In contrast, his co-leader Alice Weidel said she would not celebrate the defeat of her fatherland. 

Foreign and security policy ideas are messy and vague in the AfD. Some on the fringes of the party have come up with crude ideas about breaking up NATO and leaving the alliance, which is utopian given the dire condition of the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, and the lack of an effective common European defense. 

Despite Chancellor Scholz’s promise of a Zeitenwende (a historical turning point) with more funding for the Bundeswehr after the outbreak of Russia's war in Ukraine, the German armed forces are now in an even weaker condition than before because they have handed over a large part of their military equipment, including tanks and missiles, to Ukraine. Much of the remainder is not fit for service. 

History could be coming to another radical turning point soon with the 2024 U.S. presidential election. The E.U. establishment is slowly waking up to the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House. This would hasten a fundamentally new debate about German and European security policy. Trump has been a long-standing critic of European and mainly German underinvestment in defense, which meant free-riding on American military power that became increasingly overstretched. If Trump returns, the pressure on Germany to become more militarily self-reliant will intensify. 

Whatever is waiting in the wings of the world political stage, the internal political dynamics can also dramatically accelerate. Given the spectacular rise in polls, the firewall against the AfD will probably crack first in the east, opening new coalition possibilities. Germany’s long-lasting political shift to the left could finally be reversed.