All politics is local politics — this time, the lessons of this established axiom in America are being learned in Germany. On Sunday, the most right-wing party in the German parliament, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), achieved its first electoral breakthrough in 10 years: Its victory in the Sonneberg district of Thuringia marked the first time it has become part of a local executive.
The significance of this should neither be overestimated nor underestimated. The AfD continues to be seen as a pariah in the German political system. It’s a party with which neither the center-right CDU/CSU alliance nor the parties to its left are willing to form a coalition, neither at the federal nor state level. At the same time, according to newspaper reports on Monday, the AfD’s breakthrough has caused serious unease and fear among Jewish and Turkish organizations in Germany. Some are claiming a general crisis of democracy.
Although the AfD is often described simply as anti-immigration, it is much more than that. Thuringia has the fifth-lowest proportion of immigrants of the 16 federal states, just a few percent, which is in line with the overall picture in east Germany, even if the proportion has risen sharply in recent years. And Thuringia is not a backward, underdeveloped region either. Sonneberg on the Bavarian border, for example, is part of the European metropolitan region of Nuremberg. When my photographer colleague and I were there on a reporting trip ahead of the 2021 Bundestag elections, traveling from Gera to Erfurt and Mühlhausen, we encountered many signs of discontent with the Merkel era in a province where the greats of German culture — Bach, Schiller, Herder, Goethe — all made their mark.
“Today, Germany is unfortunately far from being a democracy. In a democracy, other voices, including conservative ones, should be heard,” said Günter Oßwald, who, contrary to the stereotype, is not a marginalized, beer-swilling, unemployed man on a housing estate, but someone who employs 150 people in his car parts business in Mühlhausen.
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Angela Merkel was — at least on paper — a conservative head of government. However, the supposedly center-right CDU/CSU coalition, the leading opposition force in Germany, has not yet overcome Merkel’s turn to the left and is unable to capture a large enough share of the right-wing electorate. The AfD is polling at 19 percent of the vote nationwide, overtaking the leading government party, the Social Democrats, and is in second place behind the Christian Union parties.
The forthcoming east German state elections could also confirm that dissatisfaction with the mainstream is making the AfD the most popular party in the eastern federal states — the former communist GDR. There is no communist nostalgia in this. As Timothy Garton Ash, who has been traveling in Germany, wrote 30 years ago, the Americanization of the GDR was more visibly successful than the Sovietization of GDR society. The far left in the east has an obvious upper limit, despite the fact that post-communists have manifested themselves in Bodo Ramelow, who is the prime minister of Thuringia.
Although it is only one district in Thuringia, the AfD’s victory in Germany is the latest warning sign for the European mainstream — which despises ordinary citizens — ahead of next year’s EU elections.
In Austria, the like-minded Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is the most popular, while in France the National Rally is gaining strength. Sunday saw a conservative election victory in Greece, and in July, the ball is set to continue in Spain. Citizens in more and more places are openly fed up with the way Europe is being run today.