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AfD capitalized on divided electorate

October 6, 2017

A new study contends that the German electorate is less divided by left versus right than by an understanding of "modernization." Could the recent election change the way establishment parties appeal to voters?

Image: Reuters/S. Loos

Researcher Robert Vehrkamp came to a dramatic conclusion after Germany's parliamentary elections: The voter fault line divides those who embrace "modernization" from those who reject it. Vehrkamp is one of the authors of a comprehensive study on the German election carried out by the Bertelsmann Foundation. Aided by two polling institutes, the researchers analyzed 621 representative constituencies nationwide and, in the days after September's elections, surveyed roughly 10,000 Germans about how they voted.

One of the study's significant conclusions is that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gave the mainstream right-wing parties — Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) — a run for their money in efforts to attract voters from the ideological "center." Despite running a clearly far-right campaign, the AfD captured 20 percent of the vote from people who view themselves as conservative but centrist — that's up 14.6 percentage points from the 2013 elections. Christina Tillmann, the director of the Bertelsmann Foundation's Future of Democracy program, said the AfD made "above average" gains. At the same time, the CDU and CSU lost 15 points among centrist voters.

Vehrkamp is not sure what these findings mean for the center-right parties in the long term, but does draw a comparison to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). After the recent elections, it is clear that the SPD is no longer a party with a reliable core voter base, he explained. The last time the SPD was able to garner the support of the working class and the lower middle class was during the 1998 elections, when Gerhard Schröder allied with the Greens to take the reins from the CDU's Helmut Kohl. After that, the SPD's support among its traditional core of voters began to dissipate. Now, Vehrkamp said, it has become legitimate to ask "whether the CDU will go the same way that the SPD has over the past 15 to 20 years." The established parties need to engage more strongly with voters who are threatening to break away, he added.

Robert Vehrkamp and Christina Tillmanm
Verhkamp and Tillmann say many AfD voters are 'modernization skeptics'Image: DW/J. Thurau

'Very important question'

The researchers also found that the increased rate of voter participation in this election meant that poorer voters somewhat closed the engagement gap with their wealthier counterparts. In 2013, 29.5 percentage points separated the two demographics; this time, that figure was 26.7 points. Tillmann said that was "important for democracy." But, she cautioned, it also carries a clear warning to the establishment parties: They should not ignore any segments of Germany in their campaigning.

In fact the AfD had success in drawing nonvoters back to polling booths, Tillmann said. She called 65 percent of the party's voters "modernization skeptics."

Vehrkamp said overcoming the societal split "will be a very important question in the years ahead." However, he added, democracy has always had "a great deal of integrative power."

The study had not yet been published on October 3, German Unity Day, when President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a speech in Mainz to mark the 27th anniversary of reunification, in which he warned of "new, invisible walls." Vehrkamp said the speech resonated with him, and showed again how important political developments over the next few years will be for German society.

After the election: Divided Germany, divided Europe?

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C