Germany’s anti-European movement got a boost on Sunday when the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany party won an unexpected victory at a state election.
The political party created in 2013 won almost 10 percent of the vote in Saxony, the most populous eastern German state, and will now have representation for the first time in a state parliament.
The arrival of a new right-wing party could cause difficulties for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, which risks losing some of its voter base.
The new party was created by a group of high profile economists who want Germany to leave the euro currency unless the bloc’s governnance is overhauled. The party failed to win seats at the general elections last September, but won 7 percent of the national vote in May’s European Parliament election.
In Saxony, the euro was barely mentioned during the campaign. The party instead sought to broaden its appeal with a campaign that focused on pro-family policies. It also called for more police to deal with increased criminality along the state’s border with Eastern Europe.
The pitch paid off, with the party winning 9.7 percent of the vote.
The party was triumphant after its unexpectedly strong showing. Its leader, an economics professor named Bernd Lucke, told reporters that the new party had “finally arrived in the German party political landscape.”
The party will be hoping that the Saxony success will propel it into parliament in two other eastern states, Thuringia and Brandenburg, which hold elections later this month.
Political observers are waiting to see if the party manages to establish itself on the political landscape or goes the way of another protest party, the Pirates. That party, which ran on a narrow Internet privacy platform, won seats in four state parliaments in 2011 and 2012 but ran out of steam ahead of the federal vote last September.
The AfD poached votes from all parties, especially the CDU, which had its worst-ever performance in Saxony, where it has dominated politics since 1990.
Up to now, Germany has never had a particularly successful right-wing party, largely due to the fact that many Germans are turned off by the blatant neo-Nazism of the far-right National Democratic Party. That party failed to make it back into the Saxony parliament, where it held seats for 10 years, after very narrowly failing to win the 5 percent of the votes needed to stay in.
The AfD is keen to portray itself as more moderate. While it has pursued a right-wing populist agenda, with policies such as opposing minarets, and focusing on law-and-order issues, it shies away from overt far-right rhetoric.
The question for the federal political landscape is whether the party will crash and burn or manage to establish itself as an alternative to the right of the CDU.
That may depend on the future direction it takes. The party is remarkably heterogenous, made up of economic liberals who oppose Germany’s euro policy and those who seek more right-wing populist agendas appealing to traditional conservatives.
Some classic conservative voters have become disillusioned with what they regard as the CDU’s left-ward turn under Chancellor Merkel. Issues including a minimum wage, abandoning nuclear energy, allowing double citizenship to Turks have all dismayed parts of the conservative basis.
“The CDU has modernized itself in the past 10 years. It is something that has made the classic conservatives unhappy,” said David Bebnowski of Göttingen Institute for the Study of Democracy.
The fact that the Free Democrats saw a dramatic loss in support after its disastrous period in coalition with Chancellor Merkel’s CDU between 2009 and 2013, has opened up space on the right of the political spectrum.
“The CDU has not succeeded in integrating the right-wing of its electorate,” said Gero Neugebauer, a politics professor at the Free University in Berlin.
Political observers are waiting to see whether the Alternative for Germany party manages to establish itself on the political landscape or goes the way of another short-lived protest party, the Pirates.
“If the AfD stabilizes, which is not yet clear, then there could be a democratic party to the right of the CDU,” said Hendrik Träger, a political scientist who teaches at the universities of Leipzig and Magdeburg. “The party then has to decide how to win back these conservative voters.”
As for the party’s euro stance, it is not clear that all of those who vote for the AfD actually want to see Germany leave the single currency.
“Generally, the people who vote for the AfD are people who are disappointed with the main parties,” said Peter Matuschek of the FORSA polling firm.
“In the state elections, the AfD was seen as an anti-euro party but the majority of people don’t want to get rid of the euro. Fewer than 30 percent want to get rid of it.”
“Euro-skepticism hasn’t really increased,” said Mr. Matuschek. “There’s criticism of some of the excesses of Brussels bureaucracy, but the AfD would be unable to succeed on this topic alone. In Germany, the majority of voters support Europe and integration.”