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Kiel study analyses success of the AfD in the last federal elections

Gaining votes by mobilising non-voters


2019 is an important election year. In May, the European elections and the state elections in Bremen will be held, as well as local elections in nine federal states. On 1 September, the citizens of Brandenburg and Saxony will elect a new state parliament. And on 27 October, the new state parliament of Thuringia will be elected. Political observers are anxious to see how the AfD, the “Alternative for Germany”, will fare in these elections. A study by political scientist Professor Christian Martin from the Comparative Politics working group at Kiel University’s Institute of Social Sciences now provides information on who the citizens were that voted for the AfD in the last Bundestag election and why they did so. It will be published in the journal Politische Vierteljahresschrift (PVS).

“The fact that the AfD now has 92 representatives in the German Bundestag marks a new phase in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. This naturally raises the question of how this could happen, where the turnaround took place and what this means for the development of democracy in Germany,” Professor Martin outlines his research interest. Why was the AfD so successful in the last Bundestag election, and why was the party able to become the third strongest parliamentary force in the country? In order to answer these questions, Professor Martin analysed various socio-economic data sources, the spatial location and attitudinal patterns of AfD voters.

Low education, high unemployment

“The AfD is elected more where the educational level is low, population density is low and the unemployment rate is relatively high,” states Professor Martin, summarising his results. Moreover, the AfD managed to gain particularly high votes in the eastern parts of Germany. More than 40 percent of the voters stated immigration as the political issue that determined their vote. Among AfD voters, this figure is even as high as 57 percent. “There is strong resentment against immigration,” concludes the political scientist.

In the meantime, right-wing national party preferences have stabilised in certain regions of Germany, Martin continued: “Where the NPD was elected in 2013, the AfD was elected in 2017. And where the NPD was elected in 2017, the AfD was also elected with above-average frequency in 2017. The NPD’s share of the vote in 2013 and 2017 is thus a highly significant indicator of the AfD’s success in the 2017 federal elections," Professor Martin stresses, adding that the AfD knew better than other parties how to motivate non-voters to vote. Professor Martin: “It was especially non-voters who voted for the AfD. And on top of that, most voters who did not vote in 2013, voted for the AfD in 2017.” According to Professor Martin, this was due to the CDU/CSU’s perceived shift towards the political centre, amongst other reasons: “The CDU is considered much more ‘left-wing’ by many AfD voters than by the average voter.”

A challenge for democracy

The study also shows that the AfD has succeeded much better than other parties in positioning itself in the political arena in terms of content and social positioning. And this is irrespective of the fact – or precisely because of it – that the party hardly has any clear positions in relevant policy fields, says Martin. The political scientist stresses that this is both an opportunity and a risk for parliamentarianism: “The success of the AfD has re-politicised the public debate in Germany as a whole. The AfD’s critical attitude towards the EU and current immigration policy has certainly added impetus to the political discourse in Germany. As a perceived alternative to the political establishment, the AfD has succeeded in obtaining a firm position in voter favour outside the political consensus.” As a result, voter turnout has increased overall, which is generally a good sign for democracy. “It means, after all, that the will of Germany’s citizens is represented by the party political range.”

Professor Martin expects that this trend will continue in the forthcoming elections. He fears, however, that at the same time the trend threatens the political consensus and thus the political stability in the country. “By constantly and consciously questioning the political consensus on values with its political positions, the AfD is making it more difficult for the political system to develop political solutions that are based on consensus and factual reasoning. In the long run, this could weaken the ability of parliaments to function and undermine the legitimacy of the system.” It therefore remains to be seen, according to the political scientist from Kiel University, whether the AfD will be able to sustainably fulfil the hopes placed in it by its voters and what effects this will have on the further development of parliamentary democracy in Germany. 

Results of the election 2017
© Uni Kiel

Results of the federal election 2017. Data source:


Professor Christian Martin
Kiel University (CAU)
Comparative Politics working group
Institute of Social Sciences
+49 (431) 880-3576, +1 (212) 998-3717


Dr. Boris Pawlowski