The German Separation

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


The German Separation

Voters are more volatile in the East, due to lower degrees of party identification. Small events can provoke relatively large voter movements.

What is the main takeaway of this election regarding the internal state of Germany?

Perhaps the election overstates the degree of internal separation. That the Christian Democrats experienced a landslide defeat in East Germany had perhaps more accidental than systematic reasons: among others, first, they had a candidate who could not have been more ‘western’, a prominent Christian Democrat, officially in charge of the integration of the ‘new states’, and who thought it would be a good idea to give his verdict on his co-citizens being all ‘diktatursozialisiert’ (socialized under a dictatorship). Second, the restrictive management of the pandemic triggered anti-government (re)sentiment that many East Germans share. All in all, voters are more volatile in the East, due to lower degrees of party identification. Small events can provoke relatively large voter movements. This time, the right-wing populists and the Social Democrats benefitted, whereas the Christian Democrats suffered.

The result of AfD in the five Eastern German states was staggering: 19.1 percent, second only to SPD with 24.2 percent. One in five - how do you explain this?

That is not a new phenomenon. Already in 2017, the share of populist voters was on average 10 to 11 percent higher in the East than in the West. For one, this is a long-term consequence of the harsh effects of the radical transformation of the society and the economy after 1990: broken biographies, experiences of very high uncertainty, mass-unemployment, etc. This time, the East-West difference might have been strengthened by ‘accidental’ factors’ such as the ones I listed above. But all in all, the AfD seems to have become the new regional protest party of the East, in this role succeeding Die Linke – which had its own, quite substantial problems of mobilizing its electorate.

The result of the other parties was also distinctly different: CDU and SPD performed slightly lower than in the West, the Greens and FDP clearly lower, and the Left party was almost three times as strong. What is the political reality behind these numbers?

Neither the Greens nor the Liberals had ever been strong in the East. Perhaps that’s no surprise when one considers that they, in different variants, voice the interests of the relatively well-off. So again: not much of a surprise here. After the election in Saxony-Anhalt in the early summer of this year, where the Greens barely managed to surpass the five percent threshold, it was clear that the party’s spectacular rise in the opinion polls did not translate easily to the new states.

Will these differences eventually create a problem for the system?

If an ‘Ampel’-coalition will form, i.e., one between Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, then it will be the duty of the SPD to represent eastern perspectives and interests – something it is capable of doing, not only because of its success in the federal elections in the north of the east, i.e., in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Pomerania, but also because the Social Democrats govern those two states. A coalition between CDU, Greens and FDP would be much more an exclusively western project.

There is also a divide on the issue of climate versus social security: 27 percent of voters in the West and 30 percent in the East stated that social security was the most important topic, while 24 percent in the West and only 17 percent in the East mentioned climate change. What are the consequences of this?

Of course, different backgrounds and different grievances lead to different policy-saliences. Where economic wellbeing in the past could be less taken for granted, or where continuous growth has been less of an experience in the last 50 to 60 years, post-materialism is not as pronounced. Any party that wants to challenge the AfD’s position as the new protest party in and of the East, will have to take this into account.


Book: Philip Manow provides a historical account of German capitalism within a comparative framework in "Social Protection, Capitalist Production".

Academic paper: This paper by Eckehard Olbrich and Sven Banisch visualizes the rise of German populism and how it changed the German political space.

Academic paper: Political economist Matthias Diermeier researched how German parliamentarians interact with fake news and found that the far-right populist AfD tailor the truth strategically and with a lesser drive for the ideal of good democratic representation.

Academic paper: This study by Evelyne Huebscher, Thomas Sattler, and Markus Wagner shows that austerity policies influence voter behavior in favour of small and radical parties in Germany.


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