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Why the German far right’s big electoral win matters

Saxony-Anhalt Holds State Elections (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Germany held regional elections on Sunday in three states, and the results were shocking. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which ran on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant platform, won 12.5 percent in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, 15 percent in Baden-Württemberg, and 24 percent in Saxony-Anhalt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democratic Party, by contrast, lost considerable vote shares.

AfD didn't win enough to control the government of any of the three states that voted, but it does now hold a significant presence in each state's legislature. In fact, it's the best result for a far-right party in any German election since World War II.

AfD isn't nearly as toxic as the Nazis, to be clear. But its rise is a troubling sign for Germany — and the West in general.

Here's why.

1) AfD's growing popularity in Germany is scary

(Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

The big takeaway from the election is the obvious one: A disturbingly far-right party is surging in the eurozone's most important country.

AfD began life in 2013 as a fringe anti-EU party. Its popularity has soared in the past several months: Since November, polls have found that AfD is the country's third most popular party nationally.

The key reason for its rise is easy to spot: the refugee crisis and rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

AfD's core policy proposal is to reverse Merkel's relatively open migration and refugee policies. AfD leaders have proposed closing Germany's borders to new migrants, suspending the right to asylum, and shutting down the EU's internal open borders policy (called Schengen).

The party's leader, Frauke Petry, defends these policies using language that's at best nativist and at worst outright racist. "Petry has urged Germans to have three children to reduce the need for immigration," Bloomberg reports, "and suggested German policy is driven by Holocaust guilt."

In late January, Petry said that German police "must prevent illegal border crossings and even use firearms if necessary." This call to shoot migrants and refugees was expected to hurt AfD at the polls. But as a Der Spiegel feature on the party notes, AfD's numbers actually went up.

The party is scary enough that Germany's justice minister is openly discussing whether the BfV, Germany's FBI equivalent, should monitor the party to see if it is unconstitutional. Article 21 of the German constitution prohibits parties that "seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order."

"The AfD has also become a catchment basin for right-wing extremists and anti-refugee, Islamophobic rabble-rousers," Der Spiegel explains. "The party's existence, and growing popularity, is raising questions as to whether Germany has truly learned the lessons of World War II and the Nazi dictatorship."

For obvious reasons, post-World War II Germany has had something of a taboo on far-right extremist parties. They've existed, sure, but until recently they've been unable to pull together significant levels of support.

The fact that one is rising — and, indeed, winning a significant percentage of the vote in elections — suggests that the liberal consensus in German politics may not be as strong as previously thought.

"Before now, populist or xenophobic parties in Germany rarely won more than 5 percent of the vote," Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, wrote after the vote. "The success of the AfD changed that, at least for the moment."

2) The far right is still on the rise in the West

AfD's big win underscores something very important about modern politics: Far-right parties like AfD are growing throughout Europe.

Der Spiegel has a nice map on this, showing the countries where far-right parties have a presence in parliament (yellow dots) or are actually part of the government (red dots). It turns out the xenophobic far right has surged in countries as diverse as Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, and Hungary:

(Der Spiegel)

These parties have, in most cases, ridden the European refugee and migrant crisis to power. While Europeans have for some time been skeptical of migration, the huge surge in migrants last year has dramatically inflamed these sentiments — leading to a rise in the far right's poll numbers. Italy's Northern League, for example, is polling at four times what it was in 2013.

Political science research shows that the support for the European far right is driven principally by fear of immigration.

Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a comparative politics professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, examined seven European countries with far-right parties in a 2008 paper. Specifically, she was looking to see what drove people to the populist right: dissatisfaction with the economy, distrust in political institutions, or anti-immigrant sentiment.

Her findings were unambiguous. "As immigration policy preferences become more restrictive, the probability of voting for the populist right increases dramatically," Ivarsflaten found. By contrast, voters with right-wing economic views were barely more likely to vote for the far right than an ordinary voter. Ditto those who didn't trust politicians very much, as the below charts make clear:

Y-axis is probability of voting for a far-right party; x-axis is the level of support for restrictive immigration policies, right-wing economic views, etc.
(Elisabeth Ivarsflaten)

"This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties," Ivarsflaten concluded. "The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis."

The immigration crisis today is, of course, much worse than it was when Ivarsflaten's piece was published in 2008. Hence why AfD is surging even in a country that's been terrified of the far right for the past 70 years, and why the far right is on the march throughout Europe more broadly.

3) Merkel's refugee policy is surviving the right-wing onslaught — for now

(Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

There's a sliver of good news in the election: AfD has not gained enough power to enact its agenda, and its surge is not likely to pressure Merkel into abandoning her pro-refugee stance.

The Guardian's Alberto Nardelli took a close look at the results from Sunday, and found that candidates who were pro-refugee and pro-migrant weren't always losers. In Baden-Württemberg, for example, Merkel's party (the Christian Democrats, or CDU) lost big. But the leading CDU candidate for state premier (governor, essentially) in that state had distanced himself from the Merkel's open borders approach to the migrant crisis.

By contrast, the Green Party's candidate had embraced Merkel's stance, and he won the state for the first time in German history.

"Across all three as a whole, a majority of voters supported the chancellor’s policy [on migration]," Nardelli found. "The prevailing narrative in swaths of the press on Monday morning – that the results are a rejection of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy — is simplistic."

Instead, Nardelli explains, the election shows that a segment of German society is becoming increasingly staunch in its opposition to welcoming refugees and migrants. This group is, at present, still a minority. That means Merkel is very unlikely to change her refugee policy, either in Germany specifically or in upcoming European negotiations.

"The refugee policy as a whole — it's simply not true that it's lost the support of the German population," Andreas Kluth, the Economist's Berlin bureau chief, explained in an interview with CNBC. "Here, she's discovered that she needs to take a certain line."

However, there's no guarantee that this will remain true. The big question going forward is whether extreme parties like the AfD are able to build on the support base they've demonstrated, or whether the sentiments driving their support (like anti-migrant sentiment) will begin to fade.

"More voters becoming bored and turning to the extremes — that is more of a threat than any immediate change to Angela Merkel's refugee policies, which I don't think will happen," Kluth concludes.

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