16.06.23 EU Review

Threat to Germany: The soaring popularity of the German far-right poses a new challenge for the European coalition supporting Ukraine

In early June, the ratings of the right-wing German party 'Alternative for Germany' (AfD) reached a record high. With current levels of support, the party could win several regional elections in Eastern Germany and secure second place in the Bundestag in the upcoming federal elections. AfD maintains close contacts with Moscow and sympathises with Russia. The main reason for the sharp rise in support for AfD lies in the ruling coalition's inability to address economic problems: the German economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters, and inflation hit historic highs last year. Additionally, Germany took in a record number of refugees in 2022, and stricter migration legislation is one of AfD’s key demands. Berlin is considering options for banning the party through the courts; however, an attempt to ban the country’s second most popular party may do more damage to German democracy than AfD itself. The success of far-right movements poses a serious threat to Germany and for the rest of Europe, limiting the room to manoeuvre when it comes to countering Russian aggression in Ukraine.

According to recent surveys conducted by independent German sociological organisations (Forsa, GMS, INSA, Kantar, Infatest dimap, Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, Allensbach, Yougov), the right-wing German party 'Alternative for Germany' (AfD) has caught up with the ruling party in terms of public support and could secure second place in the next Bundestag elections. INSA data shows that, since autumn 2021, the party's popularity has risen by 10 percentage points, from 10% to 20%. Even during the migration crisis in 2015, when more than a million refugees arrived in Germany in a single year, AfD did not enjoy such high support among voters. Although the party’s rating had been gradually rising, half of this record growth occurred in the past month. In some regions of Eastern Germany, the party has taken the top spot in popularity polls. In Thuringia and Saxony, its support reached 30% and 33%, respectively. In Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the party holds second place with results of 26% and 25%, respectively. In two of these four regions, right-wing parties could achieve victory in next year's state elections, which would be a first in German history.

The popularity of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's ruling party, the Social Democrats (SPD), has declined by 6 percentage points over the past two years, dropping to 20%. The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), the political alliance that Angela Merkel led for a long time, currently occupies the top position in all surveys. Their support has increased by 3 percentage points to 27% during the two years they have been in opposition.

Popularity of German political parties, 2021–2023, % of respondents surveyed

AfD, the Alternative for Germany party, was established in February 2013 and brings together far-right radicals, who are strong in the eastern part of the country, and moderate eurosceptics, who have support in western regions. The European migration crisis in 2015 marked a peak of the party's popularity, after which its ratings began to decline and stagnated at around 10%. The party has been criticised for its close ties to Russia, with its members expressing support for Nord Stream 2 and opposing sanctions against the Russian economy. Russian Germans and individuals from post-Soviet space form one of the most significant groups when it comes to AfD voters, and the party even translates its pre-election program into Russian for this audience. AfD deputies have repeatedly made official visits to Crimea since 2014 and have even called for the recognition of the peninsula as Russian territory. In 2022, AfD members planned to visit the occupied part of Donbas. Furthermore, at the beginning of this year, several Bundestag members from AfD participated in Vladimir Solovyov's show. Party members have been repeatedly accused of spreading Russian propaganda in Germany. In 2021, the German security services were granted the right to monitor AfD members and even wiretap their conversations due to suspicions of extremism. Prior to this, law enforcement agencies could only conduct open surveillance and rely on open source information.German experts have cited several possible reasons for the sharp rise in AfD's popularity. First, Germans are dissatisfied with the ruling coalition. In the 2021 elections, the two largest parties in Germany did not garner enough votes to form a coalition with their traditional partners. Consequently, a ruling coalition consisting of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats was formed for the first time in history. This was the only option that excluded the possibility of right-wing participation in the government (the Christian Democrats categorically refused to work with the Social Democrats). However, this coalition has struggled to make compromises. Moreover, the government is faced with the task of substantial reforms to the German economy in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. For example, they are tasked with phasing out the use of oil and gas for heating and transitioning to green energy. While the Free Democrats and Greens agree that this is necessary, they cannot agree on how to achieve it. Currently, only a fifth of Germans are satisfied with the ruling coalition. Frustration and protest have led to a significant portion of voters turning to support AfD, according to political scientist Torsten Faas. Some polls confirm this, indicating that only slightly less than a third of AfD voters support the party based on ideological considerations, while two-thirds have chosen it because they are disillusioned with other parties.

Second, Germans have once again become concerned about migration policy. Last year, Germany took in a record number of refugees due to the war in Ukraine. Whenever the migration issue comes to the forefront of public discussion, AfD always surges ahead, explains party policy researcher Uwe Jun.

Third, Germans are increasingly worried about the country’s economic problems, which have been exacerbated by the breakdown in relations with Russia. Last year, Germany experienced its highest inflation in nearly 50 years because of the energy crisis. By the end of the year, inflation had reached a level of around 10%. This led to a decline in the German economy, which continued for two consecutive quarters — a 0.5% contraction in the fourth quarter of 2022 and an additional 0.3% in the first quarter of 2023. Against this backdrop, AfD positions itself as a 'party of peace,' demanding an immediate end to the conflict and the resumption of economic ties with Russia to save the German industry.

In Berlin, concerns are growing over the rise in popularity of right-wing parties. Last week, the German Institute for Human Rights published a report titled 'Why AfD could be banned: Recommendations to the government and politicians.' After analysing the party's programs, statements from AfD leaders and deputies, legal experts concluded that AfD could potentially be banned. The Federal Constitutional Court could make such a decision under Article 21 of the Basic Law, justifying its decision on the grounds that AfD seeks to undermine the democratic order in Germany. The party's political course is rooted in the tyrannical principles of national socialism, which has been embraced by an increasing number of its members. However, for such a process to begin, the Federal Constitutional Court would need to receive a petition from either the Bundestag, the Bundesrat, or the federal government, which remains a significant obstacle to a ban. Nevertheless, according to the report’s authors, it may be possible to counter right-wing forces if all other German parties distance themselves from AfD, by committing not to form a coalition with them.

Throughout the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, there have been only two cases of party bans. The Socialist Imperial Party was banned in 1952, and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956. In 2003 and 2017, the Constitutional Court failed to ban the activities of the National Democratic Party of Germany. However, none of these parties ever enjoyed the level of support that AfD is garnering today. Moreover, even if such a case were brought before a court, this process could drag on for years. Not to mention that a ban on a party with such support could potentially inflict more harm to German democracy than the party itself.

In any case, the potential victory of the 'Alternative for Germany' party, even in regional elections, carries serious risks for the current coalition in Berlin. The formation of the largest faction in any of the German states in the near future would create the necessary conditions for AfD to secure second place in the Bundestag as early as 2025. In such a scenario, it would be even more challenging to form a new coalition without right-wing parties, and the new government would be even less stable. Members of the current ruling coalition will continue to support Kyiv. However, the higher the rating of the right-wing parties, the more attention the government will have to divert to domestic issues, and the less focus will be on external matters. The rise in popularity of far-right parties poses a significant threat to Germany and Europe as a whole, limiting the room for manoeuvre when it comes to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine.