Scandals deprive Germany’s AfD of breakthrough in local polls

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The far-right Alternative for Germany failed to achieve the electoral breakthrough it had been aiming for in local elections, as voters punished the party for a series of recent scandals.

Mayoralties, district administrator posts and municipal council seats were up for grabs across Thuringia on Sunday, in what the AfD had hoped would be a tipping point ahead of elections for the eastern German state’s government in September. 

Thuringia has long been an AfD stronghold but as counting continued on Monday it became clear that a series of damaging headlines had harmed its prospects, despite the party increasing its vote share from the state’s last local elections in 2019. 

With 85 per cent of 3,047 polling stations counted, the AfD scored around 26.4 per cent of the overall vote, putting it in second place behind the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, with 27.6 per cent, according to the Thuringian State Office for Statistics. 

The AfD had hoped to displace its conservative rival, and even expected outright victories in several of the 13 districts being contested. Instead the AfD now faces run-off elections in nine districts.

While it is likely to retain control in Sonneberg — the one district administrator’s post it holds in Germany — pollsters said its chances in other run-offs was slim. District administrators are equivalent to the leader of a UK county council.

The AfD also failed to win any of the 15 mayoralties it contested in Thuringia. The hard-left Die Linke party, which scored the largest overall share of the vote in the last elections and leads the state government, also lost ground.

“The anti-democratic parties have been relegated to their place,” said Thuringia’s CDU leader Mario Voigt, as his party’s robust performance became clear.

Campaign placards for the far-right AfD and hard-left Die Linke hang from a lampost in Thuringia
Both the far-right and the hard-left were left disappointed at the ballot box © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The AfD surged in popularity last year as discontent mounted with the left-leaning government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and its handling of a sluggish economy amid an energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

But this year it has lurched from controversy to controversy: in January party officials were revealed to have met extreme ethno-nationalists, triggering mass protests across Germany; it then faced spying scandals over senior party members’ links to Russia and China; and last week the AfD’s top candidate in upcoming EU elections was forced to resign after telling the Financial Times that he thought some members of the Nazi SS were unfairly maligned. 

Political analysts stressed that despite the lack of offices won, the results reflected electoral progress for the AfD and showed how the far-right movement has consolidated a core of loyal voters.

The results show that the AfD has risen more than 10 percentage points in the polls compared with the last elections five years ago.

In 2021, the party’s Thuringian branch was formally classified as a rightwing extremist organisation by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Earlier this month Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in Thuringia, was convicted by a German court of deliberately repeating a Nazi slogan in a speech he gave to party members in 2021.

The former history teacher is the figurehead of the AfD’s hardline, nationalist faction, which has steadily pushed the populist party further right in recent years.

In Thuringia — a former state of communist east Germany — the AfD’s brand of anti-establishment revisionism has struck a particular chord.

Tommy Frenck, a member of the neo-Nazi Homeland party, beat the CDU candidate to make it into second place and a run-off against the candidate of the centre-right Free Voters in Hildburghausen, a district with a population of 12,000. One in four residents voted for Frenck in the district.

Video: Why the far right is surging in Europe | FT Film

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