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What drives AfD voters in eastern Germany?

Kay-Alexander Scholz
September 2, 2019

The far-right Alternative for Germany continues to make gains after strong showings in two eastern state elections. What lies behind the party's success in the former East?

Supporters hold up German flags at a campaign rally for the AfD in Cottbus
Image: picture-alliance/A. Franke

AfD surges in Saxony

There is no simple way to explain the motivations of Alternative for Germany (AfD) party voters. They are far too many, and they are varied. There are, however, some conspicuous traits: Most them are between the ages of 30 and 60, and they are predominantly male

Lusatia, a region in eastern Saxony and southern Brandenburg, is an AfD stronghold. The far-right party picked up 30% of the vote there in Sunday's state elections. Lusatia suffered in the economic downturn that followed German reunification in 1990. Coal mining — practically the only major industry left in the region — has been especially hard hit. Polls show that in areas like Lusatia that struggle economically, voters often choose the AfD.

Read more: Berlin reacts to far-right surge in eastern elections

For years, state governments in Saxony and Brandenburg laid out plans to boost regional investment, some of which were much more successful than others. Those policy failings can can be felt in the region's numerous struggling communites. On the Polish border (another AfD stronghold), for example, there are near-empty towns with dilapidated streets and old lights, no shops, and hardly any children.

Many people feel abandoned by the federal government in Berlin. They had few chances for prosperity and remained disadvantaged in postunification Germany. Saxony's government has boasted about the state's prosperity⁠ but in many towns, there is little evidence of it.

When refugees began to arrive in Germany, an event that drew national attention, many people in this part of the country found it difficult to grasp. They felt they had been there long before the refugees arrived, but nobody ever cared about them. That kind of sentiment was common at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016. Talking to people living there today, little has changed.

Lusatia: The end of lignite

Out of protest and conviction

Antje Hermenau, a longtime Bundestag representative from Saxony for the Greens and author of the book Wie Sachsen die Welt sehen (How Saxony sees the World) describes a people for whom its important "things work economically."

Hermenau believes that the AfD received protest votes in previous elections because of the feeling that things were not "working." Pollsters believe the AfD has won over these protest voters, and that they now stand behind the party's agenda.

Read more: How the world press viewed the far-right surge in eastern German elections

While the AfD's presence in Saxony has been strong for years, its tone has remained more moderate than in other states. Furthermore, many AfD leaders were born in East Germany, an area where many people have long felt like second-class citizens because wages and pensions are lower than in the West. West Germans still occupy the most powerful and influential positions in politics and the government.

During the election campaign, the AfD, especially in Brandenburg, made the "east" issue its central theme, appealing to those who feel disadvantaged. The socialist Left Party introduced the term "second-class citizens" years ago, but it was the AfD who made good use of it.

German parties assess elections

Issues that rally voters

The state premiers in Saxony, Michael Kretschmer from the conservative Christian Democrats, and Brandenburg, Dietmar Woidke of the center-left Social Democrats, said on election night that it was vital to talk to constituents about their problems. The two look likely to hold onto their posts. Their remarks, however, sounded like admissions of guilt that they had not done enough listening before.

Read more: Culture under scrutiny — what AfD gains at the polls imply for the arts

The migration of wolves from Eastern Europe to eastern Germany and the construction of wind turbines are two issues that have upset voters in the region: many locals now have a towering generator close to their property. The wolf issue has enraged people, especially farmers. In an attempt to save their stocks, they were forced to fence in goats and sheep, but often wolves have still managed to kill the animals. There are now so-called wolf guards in some towns to watch over herds. When these things happened, the AfD was there: often present at pre-election events, the party was listening to the people and promised to help.

The AfD wants to use this regional election success to make gains nationally: The East can be a tailwind for voters in the West, as many party leaders have long said. But this momentum will also stoke internal party tensions: the bolstered factions from the eastern states will increasingly stake a claim on the national level.

An East-West internal party conflict appears to be looming already.

This article was translated from German by Rosalie Delaney.