The Real Winner in Germany’s State Elections

The conservatives may have gotten the most votes, but the far right won the day.
October 09, 2023
The conservatives may have gotten the most votes, but the far right won the day. More gains are ahead if the quarrelsome governing coalition in Germany cannot tackle the issues the public prioritizes.

Sunday’s state election results from Hesse and Bavaria delivered a stark warning to Germany’s governing coalition. Midway through its term, the “traffic-light” alliance of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) was punished at the polls. The conservatives won the most votes, but they, like their fellow mainstream parties in government, cannot rest easy. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) made gains, showing unabated momentum.

All three parties governing in Berlin hemorrhaged support in both state elections. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD experienced a historic loss in its traditional stronghold of Hesse, garnering a paltry 15%. But that was nearly twice the anemic 8% the party won in Bavaria. The Greens stumbled by a few percentage points in both states but are still likely to stay in power in Hesse with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Preliminary results show that the FDP is hanging on by a thread to enter the Hessian parliament but will not reach the five-percent threshold to do that in Bavaria.

With their first-place finish, the CDU in Hesse and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are in the driver’s seat to form governments in both states. But they remain in a grim mood given the AfD’s winning more than 18% in Hesse and more than 14% in Bavaria. The party has established itself as a political force across Germany, and its rise can no longer be dismissed as limited to protest voters in the former East (where it is polling above 30% in states that will hold elections next year). Even the presence of the right-wing Free Voters party on the ballot could not dampen the AfD.

CDU Chair Friedrich Merz once vowed to cut the AfD’s support in half, but his tack to the right since taking over the party in January 2022 has yielded no success in this effort. Instead, the AfD has continued to grow, and Sunday’s elections will crown it as the largest opposition party in the Hessian and Bavarian legislatures. Regardless of the CDU’s reorientation process in opposition, the AfD has certainly benefited from voter dissatisfaction—a whopping 68 percent, according to a recent INSA survey— with the national government.

Germans are largely on board with Scholz’s push for a Zeitenwende (turning point) to upgrade its military capabilities but feel that Berlin has not heard their concerns about migration and the rising cost of living. The fractured coalition in Berlin needs to show unity in addressing Germans’ concerns or more infighting is ahead. That will likely boost the AfD further.