After Poor Election Showing for Populist Far-Right Party, Germans Wonder if it Marks a Trend or Blip

By James Carstensen | March 30, 2017 | 4:56 PM EDT

Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Frauke Petry delivers a speech during aparty convention in Stuttgart, Germany on April 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Christoph Schmidt/dpa, File)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – A strong victory for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Social Union (CDU) in the recent Saarland state election could signal that the populist trend in Germany is declining.

Support for the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which holds anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-European Union views, has begun to drop from its previous historic highs.

After enjoying spectacular growth last year to become Germany’s third largest party it endured its lowest election result in more than a year in Sunday’s Saarland state election.

A year ago, the AfD achieved its best result, 24.3 percent, in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, taking second place just five points behind Merkel’s CDU. Last week, by contrast, the party secured just 5.9 percent in the small western state of Saarland.

The CDU won 40.4 percent in Saarland, and 30.1 percent went to the Social Democrats (SPD), according to early results by public broadcasters.

The results come a week after an INSA institute national opinion poll, published in Bild, gave the AfD 11.5 percent, way behind the CDU at 31 percent. The center-left SPD, meanwhile gained a point to take the lead, with 32 percent.

With less than seven months until its federal elections Germany appears to be bucking the populist trend, unlike the situation in neighboring France where right wing candidate Marine Le Pen is enjoying continued popularity ahead of presidential elections there next month.

Martin Schulz’ emergence as the SPD’s chancellor candidate appears to be a driving force behind the party’s recent growth, sapping the AfD of some of its support. Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament who promotes himself as an “everyman,” has gained notable support among both left- and right-wing voters.

For its part, the actions of Merkel’s ruling coalition government in Berlin have also done much to manage the fears that once fed the AfD’s success.

Since the beginning of the migration crisis in July 2015, a range of tougher, albeit controversial, measures such as stricter screening and tougher deportation rules, alongside the refugee deal with Turkey, have significantly reduced the number of migrants and refugees flocking to Germany, effectively stripping the AfD of its key platform issue.

“The issues of [the] refugee crisis and migration have been pushed into the background a little – and of course the AfD profits from those a lot,” Deutsche Welle quoted Hans Vorländer, political scientist at the Technical University in Dresden as saying.

He added that the AfD will likely face further barriers this year, with upcoming elections in western states, where big parties are traditionally better connected than in Germany’s eastern states.

The eastern states have been favorable to the AfD, and may more be closely aligned to its message due to region’s communist past. Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said the former East Germany “was an authoritarian regime that was not very open to diversity and which did not seek to integrate foreigners.”

The biggest city in the east, Dresden, is the home of the anti-Islam activist group PEGIDA, and has witnessed a large number of attacks on shelters for asylum seekers.

The neo-Nazi party, the NPD, also has some 264 elected municipal officials in the east, compared with 74 in the west.

Other academics disagree that the AfD’s attraction is limited to the east, however. Gero Neugebauer, professor of political sociology at Free University believes it is too early to make assumptions, and that the AfD still has the power to attract voters on other issues such as the power of the European Union, or “Islamization” in Germany.

“I’d really warn against thinking that the bad results in Saarland say anything in particular,” Neugebauer said, pointing instead to local conditions.. “The AfD’s Saarland result can be traced to the leader that the party had there, and the direction of the state party there – it’s seen as a party of strange people with links to far-right extremists.”

Regardless, Neugebauer admitted that AfD’s more controversial right leaning figures are a possible threat to the party’s future. He said they could scare away potential voters who might agree with the message of the AfD but dislike the negative public image created by them.

The party has faced growing difficulties with its public appearance, struggling to manage divisions in its ranks, particularly among these more controversial members.

Last October, it even considered disbanding its Saarland chapter entirely after it emerged that it had been maintaining contact with local neo-Nazis.

AfD member and Dresden judge Jens Maier caused controversy earlier this year when he denounced a Holocaust monument as reflecting a “guilt cult.”

Björn Höcke has proven to be another controversial figure in the party, known for openly racial overtones in his speeches.

And the party faced a backlash in February when regional chairwoman Elena Roon was revealed to have expressed views seen as supportive of Adolf Hitler.

After the Saarland election victory, CDU secretary general Peter Tauber described the outcome as signaling a turn away from disruptive forces such as the AfD.

“In uncertain times, the people trust in leaders and political forces that govern in a dependable way,” he said.