As Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) grows ever popular, the country’s once dominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party finds itself at a crossroads.
The center-right CDU was in power for much of Germany’s post-war era and oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany. It remains the country’s most popular party but now sits in opposition – an unaccustomed position – while the center-left Social Democrats govern in coalition with the Green Party and Free Democrats (FDP).
With polls showing the AfD gaining on the CDU, state elections approaching in the fall and a European Parliament election next year, the party formerly led by ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing a dilemma over how to move forward.
The CDU has long shunned the AfD because of its anti-democratic stance and fringe ideologies, which include an openly anti-migrant, euroskeptic, Islamophobic and anti-feminist agenda. As a result, CDU leader Friedrich Merz caused shockwaves in July when he left open the possibility of collaboration with the party on the local and municipal level.
In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF, Merz said it was “natural” to look at ways to continue to work cooperatively if an AfD mayor or district administrator was voted in.
Merz backpedaled later that month, posting on X, formerly known as Twitter: “To clarify it once again, and I never said it differently: the CDU resolution is valid. There will be no CDU cooperation on the local level with the AfD.”
Still, his comments were enough to spark an outcry – not least from members of his own party – and raise concerns that the party’s resolve could be weakening.
Berlin’s CDU mayor, Kai Wegner, took to X to write: “What cooperation is there to be had?
“The CDU cannot, does not want to and won’t work with a party whose business model is hatred, division and exclusion.”
Meanwhile, members of the AfD believe that shunning their party will soon be a luxury the CDU can’t afford.
Unlike many of its Western allies, coalition governments are a natural part of German politics. An electoral system established after World War II makes it almost impossible for a single party to win power, meaning multiple parties are expected to band together to form a majority.
The AfD has found particular resonance with voters in Germany’s former communist states. A poll conducted by INSA (Institute for New Social Answers) and published last Thursday found that the AfD had eclipsed the CDU in popularity in the eastern state of Saxony. There, the AfD is now polling at 35% – a significant 6 percentage points above the CDU at 29%.
The new figures have thrown into question how long Saxony’s current state governing coalition of the CDU, SPD, and the Greens can last.
Jörg Kühne, an ex-CDU member and current city councillor for the AfD in Leipzig, which is the largest city in Saxony, told CNN: “The CDU, which should have a desire for power, is strongly advised to wake up, especially in the central German states, to act in the interests of the citizens and to sit down at one table with the AfD.”
A Deutschlandtrend poll conducted by public broadcaster ARD in early August found that the majority of Germans – 64% – continue to support the CDU’s decision to reject cooperation with the AfD, although this opinion has become less popular since March 2020.
There are also clear differences between West and East Germany, with just under half of East Germans – 47% – agreeing with the CDU’s refusal to cooperate with the AfD, compared with 68% of West Germans.
In March 2021, the AfD was formally placed under surveillance by Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service on suspicion of trying to undermine Germany’s democratic constitution – making it the first party to be monitored in this way since the Nazi era crumbled in 1945. And in April this year, the BfV labeled the party’s youth wing as “extremist,” a finding it rejected.
CNN approached several AfD voters for comments, most of whom did not want to speak to the media.
But speaking on condition of anonymity, a former CDU voter who switched allegiance to the AfD had one overarching complaint: the CDU no longer represents the middle ground.
The voter, from Saxony Anhalt state, said that he believed the CDU had “slid very far to the left,” adding that many of his friends and colleagues “think the same way.”
“The CDU used to have conservative policies for mainstream society. This is no longer the case today and many feel they are no longer represented here,” he said.
Kühne, who also serves as the religious spokesperson for the AfD parliamentary group in Saxony, echoed this sentiment.
After being a member of the CDU for 15 years, from 1999-2014, he pivoted to the AfD. Explaining his political U-turn, he told CNN: “I left because the CDU moved so far to the left that it was no longer a party of the centre or the democratic right for me.”
The Saxony Anhalt voter cited migration and energy costs as well as “internal security” as the main issues that were driving voters away from the CDU and towards the AfD.
“Many people who have not received asylum should actually leave the country. However, they are tolerated and receive social assistance,” he said, adding that he believes that illegal immigrants are carrying out “extreme acts of violence almost every day” in Germany.
Data from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office does not support this, with a report finding that the rate of crimes committed by migrants sank for a third year in a row in 2022, with one in 14 criminal offenses in Germany committed by immigrants. The same data showed a rise in attacks against migrants.
Kühne gave similar explanations for why some German voters were turning to the far-right.
”Migration is, of course, an important issue. And we need to say it: it’s getting too ‘crowded’ here. The municipalities are only just coping… We will see a tipping point. At some point, our society will no longer be able to cope.”
Speaking specifically about refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, he said: “Our heart is wide and open, but everything has its limits.
“We have an influx of 12,000 people in the city of Leipzig alone. These are official figures for just Ukrainians.”
Data from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, shows that Germany had taken in over one million Ukrainian refugees to date – a figure higher than other European countries including neighbouring Poland.
During the 2015 European migrant crisis, then-chancellor Merkel adopted an “open-door” policy which saw hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria and beyond arrive in Germany – a decision which attracted both praise and criticism.
“But it’s not just migration,” Kühne added. “Our economy is stagnating, and this is backfiring.
“People can’t even fill up their cars at the gas station anymore,” he sadi, citing the scenario of a mother of “a young family with two small children” who is forced to cancel a weekend trip away with her family so that she can afford to fill her car with petrol.
The AfD appears to be capitalizing on societal grievances and learning to speak the language of the mainstream to great effect, while not abandoning its more extremist positions.
The party has begun to talk more seriously about economic policy and argues that the government’s commitment to climate policies and supporting Ukraine’s war effort are placing overly burdensome costs on the German taxpayer.
Populist parties as ‘lightning rods’
The CDU’s Michael Kretschmer, state premier of Saxony, believes a shift in policy is the best approach for democratic parties to stop the rise of the far-right.
He has been vocal about how a surge in illegal immigration is contributing to support for the AfD.
Speaking to CNN, Kretschmer said he is calling for the creation of a cross-party commission to tackle the issue of illegal immigration and put in place greater restrictions on the right to asylum.
Opinion polls in his state, one of the five that make up Germany’s former east, put the AfD in the lead; Saxony has long been a stronghold for the far-right party.
Still, Kretschmer rules out any kind of collaboration. “Of course, one cannot work together with anyone who is a danger for democracy.”
He also cites a lack of trust in the current SPD-led government as the reason for a surge in support for the AfD.
“In the past, we have seen time and again that people choose populist parties as lightning rods when trust in the government’s abilities and in democratic structures wanes,” he said.
“Trust has fallen because the federal government is too hesitant and is not tackling and solving the problems in our country that are visible to everyone.
“Citizens as well as businesses rightly expect that the federal government will finally tackle the important issues; high energy prices and inflation, a stagnating economy and growing illegal migration.”
As the AfD continues its rise, it is clear that all of Germany’s democratic parties will have to adapt to the new political landscape; although none more so than the CDU, which may have a fight on its hands to maintain its status as the country’s most popular right-of center party.