AfD, rise of a protest party in Germany?

Right-wing political party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was the big winner in the country’s recent state elections. But who’s voting for the party, and what do these results mean for Germany?

Marcel Lewandowsky is a political researcher at the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. He tells us why the populist party is stealing votes, not only from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

ResearchGate: We spoke to you last year about the rise of the AfD. After the results of the recent state elections could you give us an update on the political situation in Germany today?

Lewandowsky: The new political situation is multi-faceted. On the one hand, the results have once again shown that the traditional German coalitions – so red/green and black/yellow – no longer function today. Voters are becoming more agile and are prepared to vote for other parties. As far as the AfD is concerned, we can see that it is not only securing votes from people that are traditionally non-voters, but that it is also attracting votes away from all parties aside from the Greens. This shows that we’re currently dealing with a successful protest party.

As far as party politics are concerned, if you examine the way the media is reporting on the elections you can see that two competing interpretations have emerged, the first being that Merkel has won the election, the second being that Merkel has lost the election. What’s bizarre is that the parties that did well in the elections – aside from the AfD – are those that supported Merkel. This means that we can’t really say whether the Chancellor has come out of the election with her position strengthened or weakened.

RG: Were these results surprising to you?

Lewandowsky: No. The results were to be expected – surveys done prior to the elections showed that the AfD had a high and stable popularity rating. What’s interesting is the fact that in every state the number of people who turned up to vote increased. This means that the argument that was used before the election – that by not voting you’re strengthening right-wing – proved to be incorrect, in fact the AfD successfully mobilized non-voters to its cause. This presents a difficult democratic and political problem – namely, is it better for us if the voting turnout is lower, but no right-wing parties make it into parliament, or is it better to have a high turnout, which in turn will lead to right-wing parties being favored.

RG: Who voted for the AfD and why did so many people vote for them?

Lewandowsky: The socio-economic data shows that AfD voters are, on average, middle-aged, they are for the most part male, and they’re generally lower earners.

RG: Why don’t women vote for the AfD?

Lewandowsky: Right-wing parties are generally male-dominated, both as organizations and in their voter base. In the case of the AfD, this is at least partially due to the fact that the party represents very traditional family values and encourage women to have many children. They also support “normal" family constellations, where roles are clearly divided and, for women, being a mother is the first and foremost priority. That is not an attractive political view for the majority of women today.

RG: Where do you see the party headed, especially in light of the federal election in 2017?

Lewandowsky: This really depends on to what degree the refugee crisis will remain an issue. The AfD is the only party that has substantially different policies on this topic. However, the AfD will have to ensure that it doesn’t remain a ‘single-issue-party’ and that it can also establish its position on other issues. The question is whether they will be able to get support for policies outside of these protest topics. If current topics such as the refugee crisis are resolved, it’s very possible that the AfD will face difficulties in attracting supporters.

RG: What do the election results mean for Angela Merkel and the CDU?

Lewandowsky: Angela Merkel has made it clear on multiple occasions that she will not veer away from her refugee policy. I also don’t see her making changes as she’s basically positioned herself so strongly that she can no longer backtrack.

RG: Is there a movement against the AfD and, if so, which parties best represent this movement?

Lewandowsky: All parties have positioned themselves against the AfD. The AfD is being treated as a complete outsider – for example, there was an SPD campaign titled “My voice for reason.” The CDU also positioned itself against right-wing competitors. However, the left-wing parties (including the SPD, the Greens and the Left party) with their anti-fascist roots, are especially anti-rightwing parties such as the AfD.

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