Politics & Society

Security over Scandal:

AfD Successes from Brussels to Brandenburg

Germany’s far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is no stranger to controversy. The party is regularly accused of xenophobic language and anti-migrant policies, and has repeatedly played down the significance of Germany’s Nazi past.

In June, the head of the AfD in Thuringia and one of the party’s most prominent faces, Bjorn Höcke, was put on trial for the use of a known Nazi slogan during a December 2023 campaign event. This comes just one month after Höcke was found guilty of the same offense during a campaign event in 2021. Despite this, the AfD continues to be Germany’s second-most popular party, holding steady at 17% in the polls.

However, many in Germany believed that even the AfD would fail to extricate themselves from a series of scandals in the runup to June’s European Parliament elections. Lead candidate Maximilian Krah, first elected to the European Parliament in 2019, was accused of accepting money from both Russia and China for his work as an MEP. In addition, a member of Krah’s staff was arrested for allegedly spying for the Chinese government. Meanwhile, the AfD’s number two candidate, Petr Bystron, is also alleged to have taken bribes from Russia in exchange for favorable influence in Brussels.

While it was too late for the party to remove either candidate from the ballot, both Krah and Bystron were relegated to the fringes of the AfD’s campaign efforts following significant public outcry. Nonetheless, Krah continued to make public appearances, until an interview given to Italian newspaper La Repubblica two weeks before the election. Referring to Germany’s Nazi legacy, Krah claimed that he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal”. Even for the AfD, this was a bridge too far, and Krah was formally asked by party leadership to step down from all campaign activities.

Backlash over the incidents brought the AfD’s polling for the European Parliament elections down from as high as 19% by some estimations in April, to 14% in the days leading up to the vote. Typically, parties tend to poll slightly better than they actually perform at the ballot box, so this new figure made a repeat of the AfD’s 11% performance in the 2019 election seem likely. Instead, the AfD overperformed and netted 16% of the vote, making them the second-strongest party behind the center-right CDU/CSU at 30%. This also placed the AfD ahead of each of the three parties making up Germany’s national governing coalition; Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left SPD slipped to 14%, the fiscally-conscious FDP held at 5%, and the Green Party, who obtained over 20% of the vote in 2019, garnered a measly 12%. The Left Party got less than 3% of the vote, while political newcomer the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) received over 6% of the vote in their first election, taking much of the Left Party’s base with them.

How was the AfD able to rebound so quickly, and where did that 5% boost come from? The answer, unfortunately, lies in tragedy. Just over a week before the election, a 29-year-old police officer in Mannheim was fatally stabbed while responding to a knife attack perpetrated by a 25-year-old Afghan refugee during a rally of the anti-Islam Pax Europa group. Five other individuals were wounded, and the suspect was eventually shot and brought down by another officer.

While shock and outrage spread across the political spectrum — even prompting the left-leaning coalition to reconsider its policy against sending rejected asylum seekers back to Afghanistan — it is the AfD’s anti-migrant and strong borders rhetoric that echoed loudest. On June 7, a week after the attack and two days before the European elections, the city of Mannheim held a memorial service for the fallen officer, attended by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Several hours later, over 700 people attended a demonstration in Mannheim against “Islamism” that was organized by the AfD.

The attack validated the AfD’s desire for a domestic security crackdown, which may have swayed previously undecided voters who were now willing to overlook the foreign interference claims. In addition to the fear and sadness sweeping the nation, there was also anger at Berlin and a government that had promised to get a handle on the backlog of deportations, with middling results. The perpetrator came to Germany as an unaccompanied minor ten years earlier; his application for asylum was denied, but he was never deported. In 2022, he married a German citizen, thus cementing his right to residency. However, the debate continues for the nearly quarter of a million individuals living in Germany who have had their asylum applications rejected but are not currently in the process of being deported.

With the German federal elections still well over a year away, the European Parliament elections became the perfect forum to voice discontent — on this issue and a range of other domestic woes from inflation to housing shortages to high energy costs. This is not unique to the 2024 election; historically, the European Parliament does not carry as much weight for Germans as the Bundestag, evidenced by consistently lower voter turnout. This tends to play out in two ways: an influx of smaller, fringe parties represented, such as the pan-European Volt or satirical “Party” party, and an expression of more radical political preferences, as seen by the AfD (and BSW)’s success. In any other year, the AfD garnering 16% of the vote would be concerning for those in the political middle, but when coupled with significant losses by every mainstream party except the CDU/CSU, it is even more dramatic.

Although the European Parliament results should by no means be taken as a surefire domestic predictor, Brussels was not the only one on the ballot on June 9 — from Baden-Württemberg to Brandenburg, tens of millions of Germans also participated in local elections. Generally, the results at home did mirror the European election outcomes, with the CDU and AfD emerging as the biggest winners and the parties in the governing coalition suffering losses. However, these local contests were not just decided along party lines, but geographical ones as well. Aside from the city-states of Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin, the CDU/CSU came in first place in the entirety of western Germany. In the east, the five states making up the former German Democratic Republic all elected the AfD as their top choice.

Not only does this show a clear fracturing in German society between East and West, it previews what to expect when three of those eastern states — Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg — have statewide elections this fall. Officially, all mainstream parties have pledged not to form a coalition with the AfD, but mathematically, this may prove to be a challenge when the AfD is polling at 29% in Brandenburg and Thuringia, and 31% in Saxony.

In order to keep the anti-extremist firewall intact, there will need to be several unexpected alliances, most likely between the CDU and the BSW. How that plays out in practice remains to be seen, particularly when the BSW is a populist party with left-wing economic policies and right-wing social tendencies. Fundamental differences in areas of economy, defense, and foreign policy may end negotiations before they even begin, or create a series of ineffective coalitions that allow the AfD to further capitalize on voter discontent. Whatever the outcome in September, the European Parliament elections prove that the German electorate is deeply dissatisfied with the political status quo, and are not afraid to voice their concerns at the ballot box.


Courtney Flynn Martino

Senior Manager, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation