Any political analyst will tell you that predicting the outcome of national elections based on regional elections is risky at best. There are several reasons for this. First, local politics simple do not reflect the politics of a whole nation. Local issues and historical party affiliation have a lot more to do with local political engagement than nationwide problems that could swing a national election one way or another. A second reason is that the party in power is usually in a vulnerable position at any time that is not near a national election. Policies remain unfulfilled, legislation is incomplete and they have not had time to sufficiently woo the electorate because, generally, they have been busy running the country. Opposition parties, in comparison, have had opportunities aplenty to criticise the government and pump themselves up as a viable alternative. Voters who might be apprehensive of voting for an anti-establishment or small party at a national election often feel that it is safer to test the water at a local election. UK by-elections demonstrate this – both UKIP and George Galloway’s RESPECT Party found success in recent by-elections where they failed at General Elections. Recent US elections also show this phenomenon, with the number of Democrat seats in the House of Representatives steadily declining at every mid-term election since Obama’s inauguration in 2008.
In this way, it becomes possible to understand why extremist parties often do better at local elections than in national rounds. Therefore, there is not necessarily any cause for Germany’s establishment parties to panic at the results of the Berlin Bundesland election last month. The right-wing anti-immigration party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), which recently formed in 2013, won 14.2% of the vote share, only one per cent less than the well established Grüne and Linke parties (the Green and the Left, respectively). Even the CDU, Merkel’s own party , which currently leads the coalition in the Bundestag, managed to secure only 17.6% of the vote. The AfD didn’t even exist four years ago, and their anti-Islam stance has led to their being described as “unconstitutional”by various sources and most major parties have ruled out ever cooperating with them on a national level – yet the AfD managed to secure almost as much support from the public as a party that has ruled Germany for over 10 years. This is unprecedented.
The reasons are fairly self-evident. These elections came almost exactly a year after Merkel chose to open her borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the people of Berlin are frustrated. Violent attacks in Cologne and Munich that have been linked to refugees as well as the consistent narrative throughout the West blaming national problems on the current immigration crisis have fuelled to the AfD’s ever-growing fire. What is less self-evident is whether their success in Berlin will be reflected at the national elections next year.
This might explain why the AfD have done so well in Berlin, but it does not explain why, despite their levels of support, the AfD will almost certainly remain out of government. Although negotiations to form a viable coalition are still ongoing, most major parties have ruled out any chance of forming an agreement with the AfD, just as has happened in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and other Länder in the last few years. True, coalitions should be based around similar political interests and there are no other major German political parties who condone, let alone support, the stance of the AfD. True, there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about one party being kept out of any coalition so long as they do not receive the majority of votes. And true, most critics see their politics as highly dangerous and divisive and therefore best to be kept out of frontline politics in any case.
And yet here’s the rub: all these facts are irrelevant when one considers that most basic fact of democracy. Germany’s list voting system, which allows for extremely fair proportional representation, is far better than first-past-the-post at giving an accurate reflection in government of exactly what the public wants. The public has shown clearly that they want an AfD government almost as much as they want the Greens or the Left in power, and yet it is the latter two that will be favoured in the coalition talks. Of course, this is hardly surprising, given that it was the left-leaning SPD that gained the highest proportion of the vote and are currently set to form a so-called grand-coalition of “Rot-Rot-Grün” (red-red-green) comprising of themselves, the Left and the Green parties. And yet the CDU, who lean further right than SPD, have also stated that they would not form a coalition with the AfD under any circumstances, either in Berlin or in the Bundestag.
This does not mean that the AfD will not be heard of again in Berlin. As one of the largest opposition parties, they will have many opportunities to criticise and call into question the decisions of the ruling coalition. They will be given far greater media attention and more chances to have their say. But the question should be asked: how big a share of the vote must they get before any other party would consider getting into bed with them? And it must be asked with increasing urgency, as Germany’s national elections are coming up next year.
While it is certainly a dangerous game to predict national election results based on those of local elections, it seems certain that the electoral success of AfD in Berlin and in other Länder as one of the new faces of the opposition will be crucial in determining their fate in the Bundestag.
First published in Foreign Affairs Review 18/10/2016