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State elections in Germany offer limited relief for Berlin

Brandenburg politicians walking outside
Brandeburg State Secretary for the Interior and Local Government Katrin Lange (SPD) and CDU Brandenburg State Chairman Ingo Senftleben leave exploratory coalition talks. Photo: Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

The results of two state elections in the former East Germany on Sunday cast a troublesome picture for the region — confirming fatigue with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition government in Berlin and signaling further political fragmentation.

The big picture: Both major parties — the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — lost voters but managed to hold the line against the far-right, xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They will now seek to form a majority and build a coalition with parties other than the AfD, making the right-wing populists the largest opposition party in Brandenburg and Saxony.

Details: Since German reunification in 1990, the CDU has led the state of Saxony while the SPD has reigned in Brandenburg. Each party eked out a victory in its respective stronghold, of 32% and 26%, thanks to strong retail politicking by local candidates.

  • Yes, but: The AfD came in a close second, with almost a third of the vote in Saxony and close to a quarter in Brandenburg.

Where it stands: The AfD's ascendance is bringing together unexpected political bedfellows.

  • Brandenburg and Saxony will likely cobble together 3-party governments, as is now the case in nearly a third of Germany’s federal states.
  • When Merkel's government comes to an end in 2021, Berlin might have to make room for 3 parties in the next Cabinet.

Between the lines: The AfD was on the wane until the 2015 migration crisis paved its way into the federal Parliament in 2017 with 12.6% of the vote. It has hit a ceiling of 14% nationwide, but Sunday’s strong results show the AfD to be a major party in the former East.

  • Most AfD voters view the party as a channel for protest. Pre-election polls show that 59% of voters in Brandenburg and 66% in Saxony feel like second-class citizens.
  • The AfD has not only pulled in CDU and SPD voters but also mobilized non-voters. Close to 40% of this weekend's AfD voters stayed home 5 years ago.
  • The LEFT party, tied to the former communists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), used to be the protest party for disaffected voters in the East, but lost approximately 8 percentage points in each state.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.