It’s distressing, no doubt. A cause for concern, to be sure. But is the achievement of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany’s national election on Sunday really as earth-shaking as some would have it? I don’t think so. Or, if so, then only against the backdrop of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cruise to re-election in what everyone expected to be an utterly predictable outcome.
We should make no bones about it: the AfD did do better than expected. With its projected 12.5 percent of the vote, it will fill more than ninety seats in the German Bundestag. And yes, as media outlets unceasingly remind us, this is the first time since World War II that a far-right party (as opposed to scattered individuals) will have parliamentary representation.
That is not a welcome development. But let’s put it in perspective. The Guardian wondered “what the stunning success of the AfD means for Germany and Europe.” NPR’s next-day headline was no less fervent: “Right-Wing Party Wins Historic Gains in German Election.” Stunning? Historic? The rhetoric seems a bit over-heated.
First, that the AfD will enter the Bundestag hardly rates as news. Since 1953, Germany has required parties to meet or surpass a 5 percent threshold in the tallying of so-called second votes to gain admittance to national parliament, a policy established to prevent the fragmentation of politics that helped sink the Weimar Republic. The big relief to many last summer was that the AfD had in a number of polls appeared to lose almost 50 percent of its peak support—down to 10 percent and even lower in some estimates. Adjusted for regional differences, however, the AfD was still predicted to clear the 5 percent hurdle. While the number of AfD representatives—ninety-four as of Monday’s projection—may seem high to Americans, we need to keep in mind that the Bundestag, currently with seven hundred and nine seats, is a significantly larger and more mercurial body than the U.S. Congress.
Second, support for the AfD is not historically high; it had, according to opinion polls, hovered close to 20 percent at its peak less than a year ago. Support in the former East Germany has always been significantly higher than in the Western states, so it may come as no surprise that it garnered 24.3 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt in an April 2016 election. But even in the “solidly” Western states of Baden-Würtemberg (15.1 percent) and Rhineland Palatinate (12.6 percent), the AfD captured a similar or higher percentage of the electorate last year than in Sunday’s election.