The Far-right’s Success in the 2024 European Election in Germany — What Does It Mean, and What Is Its Impact?

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While the AfD has contributed to the widely expected shift towards the right in the new European Parliament by winning four additional seats, this is unlikely to make a significant political difference. However, the impact of this result in Germany is difficult to underestimate. Paradoxically, as the AfD has become more radical, it has also become an almost normal part of political life in Germany. Unlike in many other European countries, German mainstream parties still choose to ignore that the radical right “owns” the immigration issue. Any attempts by mainstream parties to publicly take a tough stance on immigration will likely further benefit the AfD.

By Kai Arzheimer*

The result of the 2024 European election was a devastating blow to Germany’s mainstream parties. Collectively, the Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals that make up the "traffic light" coalition won just 31% of the vote. The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), for decades Germany’s natural party of government, won 30%. While this is a modest improvement of 1.1. percentage points on their 2019 result and significantly better than the 24.1% they won in the 2021 federal election; this is still disappointing given the CDU/CSU’s historical record and the fact that the government is so unpopular. 

15.9 %, or almost half of the remaining votes, went to the populist radical right "Alternative for Germany" (AfD). While the tally was almost exactly in line with pre-election polls, and while the AfD’s vote share remained well below those of the Rassemblement National or the Fratelli d’Italia in their respective countries, this is still a remarkable result that send shockwaves through Germany and Europe, and rightfully so. 

Who are “Alternative for Germany”?

In the 2010s, Germany was one of the few West European countries where the so-called "third wave" of far-right mobilization, which had begun in the 1980s, had apparently failed on the national level. However, this changed in 2013 when a new party called "Alternative for Germany" founded just months before the federal election, came tantalizingly close to the electoral threshold. AfD won its first seats in the 2014 European elections and was successful in just about every state-level and national election that followed.

AfD initially started out as a softly Eurosceptic, socially conservative, market liberal party fueled by the rejection of the various "bail outs" aimed at keeping the southern member states within the Eurozone. From 2015, it quickly transformed into a typical radical right party focused on immigration and multiculturalism, a process speeded up by the so-called refugee crisis of 2015/16 and the political opportunities it offered.

However, the AfD differs from most other successful European far-right parties in one important way. Parties like the Rassemblement National, the Fratelli or even the Sweden Democrats strive to cut or downplay any ideological ties with historical and contemporary right-wing extremism they had or have. While this does not necessarily render them respectable, it makes them at least acceptable to a wider spectrum of potential voters and coalition partners.

The AfD initially followed a similar strategy by billing itself as "liberal-conservative" and presenting a reassuring front row of politicians that mostly could have been or even had been members of center-right parties. But from the very beginning, the party also harbored other right-wingers that were not just radical in their rejection of immigration and minority rights but also sympathetic to right-wing extremist ideas and openly anti-democratic actors outside the party proper. Over time, this faction (for a time formally organized under the label "the wing") became the most influential force within the party and already dominated the AfD when they first entered the national parliament in 2017. 

At long last, these developments attracted the attention of the "Office for the Protection of the Constitution," Germany’s domestic intelligence agency that is tasked with monitoring extremist threats. Three state parties, the AfD’s youth wing, and several individual politicians have already been classified as right-wing extremist by the authorities. The party as a whole is under surveillance as a "suspected right-wing extremist organization," a legal designation that the party has repeatedly challenged in court to no avail. 

Remarkably, all but two of the thousands of the documents the Office presented in court as evidence are from open sources that anyone could access. The AfD’s caucus in the Bundestag has hired more than a hundred known right-wing extremists as staffers, funneling public money into their organizations. Dozens of AfD politicians, up to the honorary party president, are on the record arguing that some Germans could never be considered full citizens because of their ethnicity (a claim that contravenes the constitution). Others were uncovered as members of extremist chat groups, and one former MP, a sitting judge, is currently standing trial on charges of terrorism and high treason. She had used her parliamentary pass to bring some of her co-conspirators into parliament for reconnaissance and was slated as the minister for justice in the future revolutionary government.

The party also has longstanding ties with Russia. State-level and federal MPs have repeatedly travelled to Russia, but also to Crimea and to the occupied oblasts in eastern Ukraine to serve as "election monitors" as late as September 2022. 

Why Do They (Still) Vote for AfD?

At the end of 2023, the AfD rose above 20% in the polls for the first time in its history, bolstered by concerns about inflation, immigration, energy supplies, and a general sense of discontent. However, January 2024 marked the beginning of a chain of events that trounced the party. In the early weeks of the new year, investigative journalists released footage of a meeting between AfD members including the co-leaders bureau chief, representatives of the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement, and potential donors. The attendants had discussed plans for the expulsion of millions of Germans from minority backgrounds. The report triggered mass protests on a scale not seen in many years that lasted well into March and still have not fully subsided. The story also marked the beginning of a public rift between the AfD on the one hand and Marine Le Pen and her ID group in the EP at the other. 

Over the course of April, Czech media and authorities released footage which documents that Petr Bystron, the AfD’s second-from-the-top candidate for the EP, had accepted tens of thousands of Euros from the pro-Russian propaganda outlet "Voice of Europe." As vote buying and selling is illegal in Germany, Bystron became the object of a full criminal investigation that was still ongoing at the time of the election. Just a couple of days later, Belgian police raided the offices of Maximilian Krah, the AfD’s Spitzenkandidat for the EP, and arrested one of his aides as an alleged spy for China. Krah himself was not charged, but German prosecutors launched a pre-investigation (still ongoing) into allegations that he too accepted money from China and Russia. The party made further negative headlines in May, when one of the party’s most notorious hardliners was sentenced for (repeatedly) using the banned slogan of the NSDAP’s paramilitary wing at party conferences. Just two days later, an appellate court confirmed once more that the party’s observation by the intelligence agency was legal and justified. To cap this disastrous campaign off, the AfD was finally expelled from the ID group after Krah had tried to downplay the crimes of the Waffen SS in an interview with an Italian newspaper. 

And yet, against this backdrop, 15.9% of the electorate still voted for the AfD. It is hard to frame this as some sort of content-free protest, as the AfD has a very clear and widely publicized ideological profile. There can be no more doubt that they are fervently anti-immigration, anti-European and anti-Ukrainian, linked to domestic insurrectionists, friends with foreign dictators: too far-right even by Marine Le Pen’s standards.

Pre- and post-election surveys have once more confirmed what has been known all along. The AfD’s voters are primarily driven by a (highly emotional) rejection of immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Backlash against the ecological transformation and the Green party, gender issues, and German support for Ukraine provide secondary motives. Reports about extremist tendencies within the AfD are regularly dismissed or priced in by these voters, and even concerns about Chinese and Russian influence are minimized. It is difficult to see how other parties could win these voters back in the short and medium term. 

What Are the Likely Consequences for Europe and in Germany?

While the AfD has numerically contributed to the widely expected shift towards the right in the new EP by winning four additional seats, it looks like this will make no big political difference. Even after they excluded Krah from their delegation, the remain excluded from the ID group. Right now (June 25, 2024), the AfD is approaching a number of smaller far-right parties, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, in a bid to form a parliamentary group of their own. Whether they succeed in bringing together at least 23 MEPs from at least seven members states and whether that impacts the co-operation amongst the parties in the ECR and ID groups remains to be seen. 

However, it is difficult to underestimate the impact of the result in Germany. Somewhat paradoxically, while the AfD has become more and more radical, it has also become an almost normal fact of political life in Germany. Compared to the 2019 EP and the 2021 federal election, the party has gained considerably more support amongst younger voters (a group where the AfD struggled in the past) and has also made inroads in many areas in the western states. 

Nonetheless, the AfD’s support remains geographically lopsided, with levels in the East on average twice as high as in the West. At 30% or more, this makes the AfD the biggest party in large swathes of the eastern states, three of which will go to the polls in September. If the AfD’s levels of support remain where they are now, and if some of the smaller parties fail to clear the electoral threshold in these elections (almost a certainty for the FDP and not unlikely in the case of the Greens, the Left, and the SPD), the AfD will necessitate a very awkward cooperation of the Christian Democrats and the new, left-authoritarian populist BSW. They may win enough seats to block the appointment of judges in state constitutional courts and other officials. The AfD may even end up forming a minority government in one or more of these states that would be, amongst other things, be in charge of the school curriculum and the state police force. The consequences for the respective states, but also for Germany’s normally consensual and highly interdependent system of federal policy making would be dramatic. 

But even outside (state) government, the AfD’s influence can already be felt. In the last week of the EP campaign, the Social Democrats made a desperate U-turn and came out in support of the repatriation of criminals to Afghanistan and Syria. The Christian Democrats (especially those in the eastern states) and even the Liberals have long argued that only the promise of tougher rules on immigration and immigrants can curb support for the AfD. And immediately after the election, the Chancellery, the Home Office, and the state premiers agreed that they would explore the legal feasibility of arrangements akin to the British deal with Rwanda.

Contrary to the evidence from many other European countries, German mainstream parties still choose to ignore that the radical right "owns" the immigration issue. In all likelihood, any attempts to publicly go tough on immigration will only further benefit the AfD. 


 

(*) Kai Arzheimer is Professor of German Politics and Political Sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He has published widely on voting behaviour and political attitudes and is particularly interested in Far Right parties and their voters.

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