Alternative For Germany's Success Gives Both Left And Right Food For Thought

Angela Merkel spent the weekend in Hangzhou, China, at the G20 summit. When she woke up on Monday morning she'll nonetheless have had discomforting business at home to deal with. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a protest party the like of which makes many Germans uneasy, finished ahead of Merkel's CDU in a regional election in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Meck-Pomm). It's unlikely to be the last electoral success that the AfD enjoys.

Otto von Bismarck once claimed that if he discovered the world was going to end he'd immediately head north for Mecklenburg. Why? Everything, in the Iron Chancellor's opinion, in the sleepy state on the Baltic Sea happens 100 years later there.

That might have been the perception back in Bismarck's day, but the result of Meck-Pomm's Land election on 4 September indicates that, in terms of Germany's party politics at least, the tide has well and truly turned. Back in the 1990s, for example, Meck-Pomm was the first state to bring the post-communist PDS in to a Land-level government and in 2016 it's the first state where the AfD, the spikey anti-immigration newcomer, has polled more than the centre-right CDU.

If that's not bad enough, Meck-Pomm is of course the Land where Angela Merkel has her constituency and indeed where she grew up. The fact that fewer than one in five of her Landsleute supported her party will remind her - as if she didn't know already - that discontent with her and the CDU is running high.

That the CDU may well be able to continue in government (as a junior coalition partner of the SPD) will be scant consolation. The Grand Coalition has been in place for a decade, and by popular consent it has done some really good work in what has always been one of unified Germany's poorest states. The rate of unemployment is half what it was when the Grand Coalition came in to power. Meck-Pomm is not reliant on ever more borrowing to finance investment. The tourism industry on which the state relies so heavily is flourishing. Yet the CDU, and to a (much) lesser extent the social democratic SPD are struggling.

Second order elections The reasons for this have nothing to do with regional politics. There is no burning local issue that is causing the Meck-Pommers or indeed the parties that represent them distress; it's worries about immigration that are causing the problems. And yet, nowhere in Germany are there fewer immigrants than in Germany's north-east. If - and it is an if - there is an immigration crisis elsewhere in the FRG, it's not evident in Rostock, Schwerin, Neubrandenburg or Greifswald.

Sunday's election had many of the hallmarks of a classic second order election. Voters shunned local issues in the face of national concerns. New, outsider parties (such as the AfD) did well, parties in government struggled. Political science (see here for example) would have little difficulty in arguing that the result fitted widely with expected patterns.

Yet the AfD is not, in the German context at least, a 'normal' outsider party. Germany has had them before, whether it be the likes of the Statt Party in Hamburg or latterly the Pirates in Berlin. The AfD threatens to be different. When Erik Holm, the AfD 'Spitzenkandidat' in Meck-Pomm, openly claimed that his party was "fighting for Germany to remain the land of the Germans" many Germans instinctively winced. In Meck-Pomm the AfD made little effort to talk about the challenge of reinvigorating Rostock's harbours or how to modernise local infrastructure. Whenever it talked about local issues it made sure to link them back to the broader immigration challenge. It's certainly much more at ease when it mobilises, often in decidedly apocalyptic terms, on issues that the local government can barely have any influence on. The election in Germany's north-east illustrated (again) that it does it well.

The Left's Left Reeling This, however, is not just a problem for Angela Merkel and the CDU. The parties of the left also had a bad night. Between them the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party lost well over 10 per cent of the vote. The details will need to be worked out in the next few days, but all three parties have clearly lost some support to the AfD. The left in Germany, much as in other states across Europe, doesn't possess a counter-narrative to that of the populist right. In other words, it's certainly true that Merkel's claim that 'We can do it' is met with significant scepticism, but the parties of the left have nothing better to offer. In fact, at times it feels like they have nothing of real note to offer at all. In such times, populists will and do come out to play.

Where to now? Mecklenburg is a small state. Only 2 percent of Germans live there. It is hardly a state that is representative of the larger whole. But, it's very likely that the AfD will also poll well in the final regional election of 2016 in two weeks' time. That poll takes place in a location that could hardly be more different; the city-state of Berlin. The dice will fall a little differently; the Greens will be more influential, as will in all likelihood the Linke, particularly in the eastern parts of the city. But the AfD will certainly get more than enough votes to enter what will be its 10th (out of 16) regional parliament.

The issue for the AfD's opponents remains that they are struggling to come up with positive reasons as to why Germans should vote for them. On polling day in Meck-Pomm Helmut Holter from the Linke, for example, argued that the AfD stood for hate and anger whereas the LP stood for hope and love. It might sound nice, but it's not the type of rhetoric that's going to win over worried voters.

Angela Merkel for her part will have to deal with more internal sniping, particularly from Bavaria. Yet for as long as the SPD struggles at the national level her position remains safe enough. She is no doubt feeling more uncomfortable than she has for some time, but her junior coalition partner remains - despite a number of policy successes in Berlin - stuck in the 20 percent ghetto.

Germany is becoming more uneasy. And the AfD is a perfect representation of that. Angela Merkel has none the less proven before that she can keep her nerve in the face of challenges. Past evidence would indicate that in the run up to the 2017 national election, she may well ultimately repeat the trick.