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EXPLAINED: Could the far-right AfD ever take power in Germany?

Aaron Burnett
Aaron Burnett - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Could the far-right AfD ever take power in Germany?
An AfD election poster with the slogan "The East stands up!" hangs on a main road in the district of Sonneberg, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Schutt

With the far-right party having won a mayoral election in the eastern German town of Pirna, how likely is it that it could govern at the state level or federally?

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Pirna – a town of about 40,000 inhabitants just southeast of Dresden and only a short drive from the Czech-German border – elected Germany’s first AfD city mayor on Sunday.

Even though it’s a local post, it gives the far-right party its first position of actual governing power in Germany, leading to worries that it’ll become harder to keep them out of more influential governing positions in the country.

READ ALSO: German far-right AfD scores first city mayor post

The party has come close to winning several mayoral elections in eastern German towns before Pirna, and is polling at around 22 percent nationally. That’s second only to the centre-right Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, which currently make up the largest opposition in the Bundestag.

With the current traffic light coalition between the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) having taken a major hit in the polls, over half of Germans now say they’d vote for conservative parties – whether for the centre-right CDU, the far-right AfD, or the FDP – which can often have a more conservative bent on some issues, such as immigration or the national budget.

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What is the cordon sanitaire - or Brandmauer - against working with the AfD?

With the CDU likely to win the next election, could they try and form a right-wing coalition that would include the AfD to oust the currently governing centre-left? Just by looking at the numbers, yes, this is theoretically possible. But according to experts, it’s still unlikely, for several reasons.

Due to Germany’s proportional representation system, the winner of the election must typically find a partner to govern with – and these parties will spend months negotiating an agreement on everything from policy to who gets what ministries.

German anti-Afd protest

Members of the German citizen initiative "Omas gegen rechts" (Grannies Against the Right) hold up placards during a demonstration against the AfD. Photo: Ronny HARTMANN / AFP

However, all major German parties other than the AfD have an explicitly stated policy of not working with the AfD to form governments. Even if the centre-right CDU competes with the AfD for certain right-wing voters, it also maintains a policy of not negotiating with the far-right party to form governments.

A policy like this is sometimes called the cordon sanitaire – using the French term for “sanitary cordon”. In German, it's termed the Brandmauer, or firewall. As long as it’s in place, the AfD will be kept out of government in Germany as no other parties will agree to work with them, with those other parties forming coalitions together to keep the far-right out of power.

For this reason, as long as German parties keep the cordon in place, the AfD would have to win over half of all votes cast to form a government – as they’d need an absolute majority – a very rare thing in German politics. Although common in Bavarian history with centre-right Christian Social Union (CSU) state governments, Germany has only ever had one absolute majority federally – in 1957.

READ ALSO: Far-right AfD overtakes Germany’s Social Democrats in polls

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Could the cordon sanitaire against working with the AfD fall?

Experts say the AfD is still probably staying out of government for now – but their recent polling successes are getting harder to ignore.

“A formal or even informal cooperation at the national level is highly unlikely for the time being,” Dr. Kai Arzheimer, a Professor of Politics at the University of Mainz and an expert on extreme right politics in Germany and Europe, tells The Local. “Within the eastern state parties of both the CDU and the FDP, there seems to be some appetite for coming to an arrangement with the AfD. A formal coalition would probably split either party.”

Nationally, CDU leader Friedrich Merz recently suggested he would be open to cooperating with the AfD at the local level, but not at the state or national level. His comments quickly attracted criticism – even from within his own party.

“Where should we work TOGETHER? The CDU cannot, does not want to and will not work with a party whose business model is hate, division and exclusion,” tweeted Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner, who also chairs the Berlin CDU, at the time.

In 2018, the national CDU also passed a party resolution ruling out cooperation with either the far-left Linke or the far-right AfD. A CDU leader who dispensed with that resolution may well be greeted with a backlash inside their own party as well as from the wider German public.

That said, a recent Yougov survey finds German attitudes softening on cooperation with the AfD. In the latest poll, 38 percent of Germans say parties like the CDU should completely rule out the idea – including 38 percent of regular CDU voters. That’s down from 47 percent who said the same thing in July 2023.

Meanwhile, 32 percent of the public say the CDU should consider cooperation with the AfD on a case-by-case basis – meaning that the CDU might work with the AfD informally to get laws passed but not have them be a part of government.

Only 17 percent say the CDU should actively seek to work more with the AfD.

‘Inhumane ideologies’: Germany labels far-right AfD’s youth wing ‘extremist’

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Formal cooperation is ruled out. But what about informal cooperation?

Arzheimer says this is much more likely in the near future, especially in eastern German states, where the AfD has its strongest level of support.

“We have already seen some tentative moves towards an informal cooperation. In Thuringia, where the AfD is both very strong and particularly extreme, the CDU and FDP were recently able to pass a law because the AfD supported their motion,” says Arzheimer. “While they denied that this was in any way coordinated, it was clear from the get-go that the AfD would vote with them.”

Governing without the AfD in eastern states anyway, is likely to get harder in the future, as the AfD tops the polls in many of those states.

In Brandenburg, which votes again in September 2024, the AfD leads the polls with 27 percent, requiring an awkward three-party coalition with the other three major parties – the CDU, Social Democrats, and the Greens – to keep the far-right out of government.

Thuringia, which also votes again in September, currently shows the AfD at 34 percent in the polls. Any coalition to keep them out would mathematically likely have to include the CDU and the Left Party (Linke) – something the CDU has explicitly ruled out.

ANALYSIS: Are far-right sentiments growing in eastern Germany?

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How much of the AfD vote is still driven by hostility to foreigners?

“Backlash against immigration is fundamental to the AfD vote,” says Arzheimer. “The AfD owns this issue, and immigration currently tops the agenda, due to both world events and the misguided idea that non-radical parties can win voters back from the AfD by copying their policies (or at least their rhetoric).”

Many see examples of this in the CDU's recent rhetoric and proposed policies around immigration, including a recent idea to copy the UK's beleaguered policy of deporting asylum seekers to third countries such as Rwanda. 

Although AfD also gets some of its votes due to economic discontent, there is often an anti-immigration element in these arguments as well, with the party arguing that more foreigners drive down the German standard of living by putting more pressure on government budgets and public services, while driving up crime.

“AfD has its strongholds in often rural low-immigration areas, and most of their voters rarely encounter immigrants in their daily lives, which makes them even more convenient scapegoats,” says Arzheimer.

With recent world events and Germany’s need for more skilled immigration in particular to combat its labour shortage, the issue may not die down anytime soon.

READ ALSO: Germany labels Saxony branch of far-right AfD as extremist

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Comments (2)

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John Hammond 2023/12/18 18:49
...and seem largely to have been left behind. It is imperative that the wealthier part of Germany take a hard look at itself and climb out of its own shell to help their fellow citizens get on their feet. There will be quite some price to pay if they don't. 2/2
John Hammond 2023/12/18 18:45
What, I wonder, is the attraction of these far Right-wing parties (such as the AfD) to the electorate of Eastern Europe, in general, and to the AfD in Eastern Germany? Is it that the fear and dislike (Hatred?) of foreigners (The 'other') was so ingrained during the Communist period throughout that ghastly Empire that those citizens who suffered it have not yet been able to get it out of their blood? The citizens of E Germany took quite a hit when it merged with W Germany... 1/2

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