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Germany: Far-right AfD wins first governing post

June 25, 2023

The populist AfD party has won a district council election for the first time with Robert Sesselmann elected in Sonneberg. This was despite all other parties urging their supporters to vote for the other candidate.

Voting placards for the AfD in Sonneberg
Sonneberg is one of the smallest districts in Germany, but the vote has attracted national interestImage: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance

For the first time in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has won a district council election, administrators announced on Sunday (25.6.2023).

Voters in the eastern German town of Sonneberg— located in former East Germany GDR — elected AfD candidate Robert Sesselmann at the expense of incumbent district administrator Jürgen Köpper of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In the runoff election in the Thuringian district of Sonneberg, Sesselmann won 52.8% of the vote, earning him the necessary absolute majority, according to election officials.

The area of some 57,000 people is one of the smallest districts in Germany. Still, the AfD victory is a major breakthrough for the far-right party, whose Thuringia branch has been classified as far-right extremist by Germany's domestic intelligence service. All mainstream parties regularly vow to not enter coalition governments with the AfD.

The AfD's leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, welcomed the win and said it demonstrates the party's recent momentum.

"And then we'll prepare for the state elections in the east, where we can really create a political earthquake," he said, referring to state parliament elections in the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg.

Members of the AfD celebrate Sesselmann's win
Robert Sesselmann (center) was joined by the party's leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke (left), and national AfD chairman Tino Chrupalla (right) Image: Jacob Schröter/IMAGO

How did AfD's opponents react?

Thuringia's Interior Minister Georg Maier, who belongs to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), described the outcome as "an alarm signal for all democratic forces."

He called for party-political interests to be set aside and a joint effort to defend democracy.

The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said although not every AfD voter holds extreme right-wing views, the party itself does.

"This is a watershed that this country's democratic political forces cannot simply accept," he told the RND media network.

The International Auschwitz Committee also expressed horror.

"Today is a sad day for the Sonneberg district, for Germany, and for democracy," Executive Vice President Christoph Heubner said.

"A majority of voters have obviously said goodbye to democracy and deliberately opted for an extreme right-wing party of destruction dominated by a Nazi [Björn Höcke. eds]."

What was at stake?

Earlier this month, the first round of elections in the runoff vote saw Sesselmann fall short of outright victory by only a few percentage points.

Such a strong showing for an AfD candidate raised the alarm nationally, with all other main political parties — the SPD, the Greens, the neoliberal FDP, and the socialist Left Party — backing the incumbent.

Though the highest political office in that small arena, the position itself is of only moderate consequence and carries rather limited power. Even with the AfD's Sesselmann win, many of his duties will entail simply implementing laws from either the state or the federal parliament at the local level.

However, critics fear the idea of the AfD wielding political power in any measure and say the party is xenophobic and anti-democratic.

Why the AfD is surging in polls

Germany's domestic intelligence service classifies the party in Thuringia and its controversial hardline leader, Björn Höcke, as far-right extremists.

The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) had also urged voters to turn out to support conservative Köpper.

The CDU claimed the election campaign had been abrasive and nasty, with false claims circulating on social media.

AfD making inroads

The AfD win on Sunday is widely seen as a milestone for the far-right party, which is currently polling between 18% and 20% nationwide.

It has gained a wave of support as the center-left federal coalition government of SPD with the environmentalist Greens and the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is showing signs of infighting. Even with their rise, however, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is from the SPD, faces a bigger challenge from the right-leaning CDU. The conservative party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel is polling at just under 30%.

The AfD first entered the national parliament in 2017 after campaigning strongly against migration. More recently, the party has been criticizing German support for Ukraine as Kyiv fights off the invasion from Russia.

zc, jsi, rc/kb (dpa, AFP, AP)

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