When the two eastern German states of Saxony and Brandenburg went to vote on Sunday, Germans held their breath fearfully. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition government had seemed fragile for months. In 2018, wrenching losses for her Christian Democrats (CDU) in two successive regional elections had caused her to step down as party head. A rout in this May’s European Parliament elections had led to the resignation of Andrea Nahles, leader of her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), who are still struggling to find a replacement.
Would yet another drubbing for either or both parties be a death blow for the government? Worse yet, would the extreme right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party roar up to victory, deepening Germany’s west-east divisions? Or would the Greens, who have been surging for months in western Germany, finally establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the east?
The voters’ answer was: all of the above, and none of the above. The polarization and fragmentation of Germany’s party landscape — dominated for many decades by the two “popular parties” CDU and SPD, with the Liberals (and later the Greens) as kingmakers — continues apace.
Painful losses were posted by the CDU and the SPD in both states. Yet the CDU again won Saxony (32.1 percent, down 7.3 from 2014), which it has ruled ever since reunification in 1989. The SPD did the same in Brandenburg (26.2 percent, down 5.7 percent from 2014), which it, too, has governed for the past 29 years. So Merkel’s grand coalition government in Berlin is safe — for now.
The Greens, who have recently been running neck to neck with the CDU in national opinion surveys, made only modest gains. The clear losers in both states were the hard-left Die Linke (the reincarnation of the old East German communist party) and the Liberals; the latter didn’t even make it across the 5 percent threshold for entry into the legislature.
As all parties have formally excluded any coalition with the AfD, the winners in both states have no other option than to enter into three-way marriages of convenience. The CDU in Saxony is looking at a CDU-SPD-Green alliance, and the SPD in Brandenburg at a left-of-center cooperation with the Linke and the Greens. Both arrangements will require participants to overcome significant ideological differences, which bodes for protracted negotiations. It also offers the AfD an opportunity to complain that “the establishment” is ganging up against it.
The AfD did surge, if only to second place. It took 27.5 percent of the vote in Saxony (up 17.8 points from 2014), and 23.5 percent in Brandenburg (up 11.3 points). It’s instructive to compare those numbers with the October 2017 nationwide elections, in which the AfD got 27 percent in Saxony and 20.2 percent in Brandenburg.
The reality is that the AfD has been plateauing in both states for the past two years, rather than ramping up. The fact that it has been riven by public infighting in which the radical hard-right faction known as the “Flügel” (wing) has visibly been gaining ascendancy may have something to do with that.
The question of why a quarter of the voters in two east German state elections nonetheless cast their vote for a party that has actual neo-Nazis in its midst has been the subject of much debate and anguished introspection. The fact that Sunday was also the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland — German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Warsaw, apologizing to the Polish people in a moving speech — added to the somber public mood.
The economic and social gap between western and eastern Germany has been closing rapidly in the past decade. Yet a startling two-thirds of respondents in exit polls agreed that “East Germans are second-class citizens.” A distinct increase in turnout by nonvoters in the previous election also benefited the AfD.
Much anecdotal evidence suggests that east Germans harbor a host of complicated and often angry emotions with regard to the consequences of the peaceful revolution of 1989. Tens of thousands risked their lives to join candlelit protest marches while armed troops waited in the side streets. Yet many felt colonized in the aftermath of reunification, or left behind as others moved westward in droves, in search of better jobs. And — just as in West Germany after 1945 —the anger of some is really inexpressible shame at having been part of an oppressive, dehumanizing system.
Arguably, it took us West Germans 40 years to work through our own dark story. It seems the conversation about our joint history is just beginning. Sunday’s elections were a reprieve. But the next test is nearing fast: elections in Thuringia on Oct. 27. There, the AfD’s local frontman is Björn Höcke, one of the leaders of its radical wing.
Constanze Stelzenmüller is a Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.