The Christian Democrats must not learn the wrong lessons from two state elections by adopting the rhetoric of the far right.
Two of the most populous regions of Germany went to the polls last weekend. The election results from Bavaria and Hesse showed a clear rise in support for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). While the AfD has achieved good results in the former East Germany in the past, this success in the west shows how much the party has been normalised in Germany.
Last week in Manchester, Britain’s Conservatives were looking at their shrinking support and deciding how warmly to embrace the politics of the populist right in the United Kingdom. Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) will be studying last weekend’s results and considering whether they want to follow a similar path.
Breaching the Brandmauer
Influenced by the country’s history, all major German parties have so far categorically excluded co-operation with the AfD. By erecting a Brandmauer (firewall) German parties aim to keep the AfD out of office and stop it portraying itself as a legitimate democratic force.
Friedrich Merz, the CDU leader since 2022, has however sent mixed messages. He has been trying to sharpen the conservative profile of the CDU, breaking with the more centrist approach of Angela Merkel, the longstanding chancellor. Recently, he accused asylum-seekers of taking dental appointments from German citizens.
Over the summer, Merz made remarks implying support for co-operation with the AfD at local level, later walking this back after a backlash including from members of his own party. Despite this, in September in the state of Thuringia, parliamentarians from the CDU passed tax cuts with the help of AfD votes.
The election results in Bavaria and Hesse will fuel the debate over how to oppose the AfD most effectively. The biggest party in Bavaria is the Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party of the larger CDU with which it forms a group in the federal Bundestag. In the campaign the Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader, Markus Söder, sometimes verged on the populist. But while the CSU is trying to frame its vote share of 37 per cent (compared with 37.2 per cent in the previous election) as a success, this represented its worst result in a Bavarian election since the 1950s.
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Currently, the CSU forms a governing coalition in Bavaria with the Free Voters of Bavaria (FW), a conservative party which was originally a loose grouping of local politicians. It is led by Hubert Aiwanger, who has a reputation for drifting too far to the right. The FW’s conservative positions are often similar to those of the CSU, but Aiwanger’s rhetoric is much sharper, often focused on topics associated with ‘culture wars’.
Last June, Aiwanger drew pointed criticism for adopting far-right rhetoric, when in a speech to protesters he said that ‘the point has been reached where the silent vast majority of this country must finally take back democracy’. In August, a German newspaper revealed that when Aiwanger was a student an anti-Semitic leaflet had been found in his backpack.
Aiwanger’s brother claimed responsibility for writing the leaflet, but the way Aiwanger dealt with the scandal almost led to his dismissal as Bavaria’s vice-minister-president. Söder ultimately let him stay however and Aiwanger subsequently portrayed himself as the victim of a campaign against him.
The scandal seems not to have damaged the FW—rather the opposite. It won the second largest vote share (up from 11.6 to 15.8 per cent). Aiwanger’s strategy was to woo voters from the AfD by adopting the latter’s issues and talking points.
Some CDU/CSU politicians might take his success as a sign that the way to deal with the AfD is to outflank it on the right. But that would be a wrong and dangerous inference.
While the FW gained votes, so did the AfD (up from 10.2 to 14.6 per cent). The FW and the AfD both won over voters who had previously backed the CSU or other parties. Crucially, neither the CSU nor the FW managed to attract voters who backed the AfD in previous elections.
The Bavarian election showed that when Christian-democrat and conservative parties use the rhetoric of the far right, it makes the far right seem more respectable. Citizens would then rather vote for the original than the copy, as the former French far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen put it. As the then CSU secretary general, Markus Blume, said in 2020, ‘one cannot out-stink a skunk’.
With several regional polls happening next year, as well as elections to the European Parliament, the German Christian democrats need to find a strategy to deal with the AfD that does not just consist of adopting its rhetoric. As support for the far right has grown across Europe, a process of normalisation has set in. In a number of countries, far-right parties are part of governing coalitions, successfully portraying themselves as legitimate political forces.
Germany has managed to maintain a firewall better than most, but cracks are appearing. Whether Christian democrats partner with the AfD or merely steal its language, a more nationalist-populist Germany would be profoundly disturbing for neighbouring countries and potentially disruptive within the European Union.
This first appeared on the EUROPP blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Christina Keßler is a fellow at the Centre for European Reform, having worked for NATO’s Policy Planning Unit and the European Green Party. She holds masters in European political and governance studies and in global governance and diplomacy, from the College of Europe and Oxford.