Media attention after the vote in Saarland has mainly focused on a disappointing night for the Social Democrats (SPD), who were supposed to be in the middle of a resurgence thanks to their charismatic new leader Martin Schulz.
While Angela Merkel’s CDU won 40.7 percent of the vote, increasing their share by five percent, the SPD only won a 29.6 percent vote share, despite polls suggesting the parties would be neck-and-neck.
An equally intriguing story though, has been the miserable result scored by the AfD which won 6.2 percent of the vote – not far above the 5 percent threshold for making it into German parliaments.
The drab score is in sharp contrast to a string of double-digit results in five state elections throughout 2016, culminating in 14 percent of the vote in the liberal capital Berlin. After the Berlin election, one triumphant leader claimed they were going to become “at least” the third biggest party in the national election.
At their high point in May 2016, the far-right party were also polling at 11 percent in Saarland. A recently as January, they scored 10 percent in an INSA poll for the southwestern state.
But the Saarland result has led the party’s enemies to smell blood.
Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), said on Monday that “it could be the case that the AfD don’t make it into the German Bundestag (national parliament)” when the September election comes around.
“I think it’s possible that we can keep the AfD out of the Bundestag,” Thomas Oppermann, faction leader of the SPD in the Bundestag, bullishly claimed.
Manfred Güllner, head of polling company Forsa, told The Local that he “would not rule it out” that the AfD do not make it into the Bundestag.
And he was adamant that if they don't make it over the 5 percent threshold, they'll be history.
“If they don’t get enough votes, they will eventually be dropped out of the state parliaments and disappear,” he said.
Güllner pointed to various other far-right parties, including the NPD in the 1960s and the Republicans in the 1980s who had shock success in their early years, before quickly slipping into irrelevance.
“This always happens to far-right parties in Germany,” he said.
'Not a shock'
The Saarland result was “not a complete shock,” Güllner said.
“We conducted two surveys which showed them exactly on six percent leading up to the vote, while on the national level their support has also dropped to between 8 and 9 percent for weeks.”
The pollster pointed to three causes for the AfD result in Saarland, which are also influencing their national slump in support.
He explained that surveys showed that voters do not consider the refugee crisis to be something that is of importance to them. But whereas even in late 2016, extensive media coverage of the issue gave the impression that mainstream politicians were making it central to election campaigns, that perception has changed in recent weeks.
The refugee crisis had “been a magnet for the AfD,” as long as it was in the news, he said.
“Secondly, internal party disputes from the national level down to the state level have put voters of them,” Güllner said.
In the most high-profile case, Thuringia party leader Björn Höcke criticized how Germany remembers the Holocaust, saying that in schools “German history – is made into something rotten and ridiculous.”
The speech led Josef Schuster, chair of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to respond that “the AfD have shown their true face with these anti-Semitic and extremely inhumane words.”
The controversy had an immediate effect on the party’s poll results and led to a feud between the two national leaders Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen. While Petry desperately tried to have Höcke expelled from the party, Meuthen has stuck by him.
“We have seen it before. The radical right-wing parties tear themselves up from the inside,” Güllner said.
Thirdly for Güllner, people who started voting for the AfD out of protest were won over by the newly reinvigorated SPD in Saarland.
“The vast majority of AfD voters are radical right, but they lost between 1 and 1.5 percent of their vote share in this way to the SPD.”
Two more tests
In May there are two further state elections in Germany which will be the focus of national attention in the lead up to the national vote.
Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) both head to the ballot box that month. And for Güllner, the AfD’s chances in NRW are even slimmer than in Saarland.
“Historically, far-right parties have always been weaker in NRW than on the national level. If they got 6 percent in Saarland, a state with a far-right history, I would expect them to do worse there.”
The latest Forsa poll for NRW puts the AfD at 7 percent, while an Infratest dimap poll from March 19th puts them at 9 percent.
The AfD themselves claim that not too much should be read into the vote.
Party co-leader Meuthen said on Monday that the result said nothing about how well the party would do in national election later in the year.
“I don’t see a downward trend,” he claimed, blaming special conditions in the small state, including the strength of the left-wing Die LInke party, for the result.
The AfD in Saarland “scored a respectable result in very difficult circumstances and with a small budget,” he said.