Last September’s German election produced interesting results. The election created a Bundestag with 6 parties, more than any election since WWII. This has made coalition formation difficult as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Angela Merkel failed to build a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, and is now trying to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SDP). Part of the reason that coalition formation in Germany is so difficult after this election is that both the CDU and SPD lost significant shares of the vote to small parties. The CDU dropped from 41.5% of the vote in 2013 to 32.9% in 2017, while the SPD dropped from 25.7% to 20.5%. In light of this, it is interesting to look at which smaller parties have benefited from the declines in the two major parties. When one looks at where the CDU and SPD have lost votes, it appears that each of the smaller parties benefited from the larger parties’ decline, though the AFD did particularly well in districts where the CDU or their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost significant amounts of the vote.
I took advantage of Germany’s mixed member proportional system to examine the way that votes shifted from larger to smaller parties in the last election. Like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Germany is divided into districts (known in some countries as ridings or constituencies) for elections. Unlike in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, German voters get to vote both for a district representative and party that they prefer. The candidate with the most votes in the district enters the Bundestag as the representative for that district, but additional members are also added to the Bundestag from party lists in order to ensure that each party’s total number of seats is equal to its share of the party of vote. To examine shifts in vote share I looked at the way that voters’ party vote shifted in different districts, comparing the losses in the two main parties to the gains made by the smaller parties. I used voters’ party vote and not their vote for district representative, because party votes are less likely to be subject to strategic considerations (district representative votes for weak parties are more likely to be seen as wasted than party votes) and because party votes are less likely to be influenced by the quality of the candidate being run in the district. In all of my analysis, I look at the change in party vote share between the 2017 and 2013 elections.
The strongest differences with respect to where a minor party gained votes exist for the AFD. The graph below compares the change in vote for the two largest parties to the change in vote for the AFD in each district. Districts that saw AFD gains between 10 and 20 percentage points saw much larger declines in CDU/CSU vote shares (in black) than SPD vote shares (in red). Where the AFD’s gains were weaker (between 5 and 10 points), the CDU/CSU’s and SPD’s losses where much closer to each other. This suggests that the AFD is pulling more votes from the CDU/CSU than from the SPD. This fits with the way that the AFD has challenged Merkel for her openness to receiving refugees during the Syrian refugees crisis. At the same time, the fact that the AFD made gains in districts that saw similar CDU/CSU and SPD losses suggests that it is plausible that the AFD took at least some votes from the SPD.
The party with the next greatest divide in gains from the CDU/CSU and SPD is the far-left Die Linke or Left party. The graph below shows that where Die Linke made gains, CDU/CSU and SPD losses where fairly similar. CDU/CSU losses were greater than the SPD’s, but that is likely due the fact that the CDU/CSU losses in general where greater than the SPD’s. This should not be seen as evidence that the Die Linke is drawing a large number of voters from the CDU/CSU.
Interestingly, the districts that Die Linke lost most in are also the districts that the CDU/CSU suffered their heaviest losses. It is plausible, though more evidence would be needed to prove this, that the AFD has managed to appeal to disillusioned voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Voters who voted for Die Linke in 2013 out of disillusionment with the mainstream parties may have seen the AFD as plausible alternative to mainstream parties in 2017. While Die Linke and the AFD have very different anti-establishment appeals, Die Linke’s is economic and anti-capitalist while the AFD’s is anti-immigrant and anti-European integration, it is plausible that anti-establishment voters would shift between the two parties. This may have occured if AFD was able to increase the salience of immigration and European integration issues at the expense of the economy. In such circumstances anti-establishment voters may shift from Die Linke as the economic anti-establishment party to the AFD as the anti-immigrant anti-Europe anti-establishment party. This is supported by the graph below, which shows that the districts that saw the largest declines in the Die Linke vote also saw the largest gains for the AFD.
It is finally notable that the differences between who the two mainstream smaller parties took votes from are less pronounced. The first graph below shows that the FDP did slightly better in districts where the SPD lost more votes and where the CDU/CSU lost slightly less, but these differences do not appear to be particularly significant. The second graph below shows that the size of SPD losses appeared to have no correlation at all with the change in the Green vote, though the party did do slightly better in districts where CDU/CSU losses where larger (the size of the Green gains in these districts however is only two of three points).
The greatest damage done to the two German mainstream parties in 2017 was done by the AFD. Their growth disproportionately affected the CDU/CSU, suggesting that they are a greater threat to the CDU/CSU than to the SPD. At the same time, the SPD also lost votes in the districts where the AFD saw gains. While the SPD should feel less threatened by the AFD than the CDU/CSU, it is not necessarily the case that they face no threat at all from the party. Far-right parties around Europe have been able to take votes from anti-immigrant left-leaning voters who perceive immigration and the European integration as a threat. This should lead the AFD to be able to take at least some votes from the SPD, even if they take a larger number from the CDU/CSU. The gains that the AFD made at the expense of the CDU/CSU mean that, as Angela Merkel attempts to navigate her through coalition talks, she will have to pay particular attention to the threat the AFD presents to her party.