Some of the oldest and most established party systems in the world seem to be imploding. Unprecedented levels of electoral volatility, the collapse of the historical mainstream, and the emergence of new populist alternatives are part of a vertiginous process that is not always easy to comprehend.
A new wave of radical right parties is now proving capable of reshaping democracies that once seemed immune to them. The recent success of Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the regional elections is just the latest example of the establishment being shaken at the ballot box.
In the March 13 elections, AfD, a party that was only founded in 2013, won seats in eight German state parliaments. It came second, winning up to 24% of the popular vote, in states such as Saxony-Anhalt in East Germany.
What explains the success?
Research on radical right politics has focused on the socio-demographic profile of anti-immigrant voters, and on national characteristics such as the state of the economy. While illuminating, both approaches have proved insufficient.
There is a high degree of certainty about the sociological profile of the anti-immigrant voter. They tend to be working class, low educated, unemployed, male, nationalistic, and somewhat authoritarian.
But all established European democracies have significant portions of the electorate sharing these characteristics. So this approach can’t explain why radical parties have emerged in France and the Netherlands, for instance, but not in Spain or Portugal.
Macro-economic performance is also not a helpful explanation on its own. Countries severely punished by the recent financial meltdown, such as Spain or Ireland, show no signs of radical right realignment, while high-performing and relatively equal countries, such as Sweden, Switzerland, or Germany, do.
Our own research suggests that what mainstream centre-right parties do and don’t say about immigration is particularly important. If they can control the narrative on this issue and address the concerns of voters, they can prevent radical parties from making headway. And our study on the attitudes and political loyalties of more than 8,000 German citizens tracked for more than a decade since 1999 confirms this.
The German case
Immigration is hardly a new issue in German party politics. High levels of concern about immigration among the population – coupled with media attention on the issue – have consistently increased voters’ loyalty to the centre-right CDU-CSU, now led by Angela Merkel.
This effect had one of its numerous peaks in the mid-2000s. At that time, debates were raging about whether the EU should bring in new members and whether German immigration law should be reformed. The CDU-CSU, in opposition at the time, were tough on immigration, considering the proposed reforms to be too liberal – and benefited from their stance.
The beneficial impact of immigration concerns on the electoral prospects of the CDU-CSU naturally depended on having a credible stance on immigration. This is what political scientists call the “ownership” of an issue.
Public opinion data indicates that the CDU-CSU has clearly owned the immigration issue over the past decade and a half. It had the highest percentage of negative statements on multiculturalism in successive electoral manifestos (58%, almost 50 points above the second toughest party). It was also considered the party most focused and able to deal with immigration (55% of the German public thought so during the period under consideration, almost 30 points above the next preferred party).
But that support can’t be taken for granted. When matching the recent political developments with our findings, it becomes clear that Angela Merkel’s recent, surprisingly liberal position on the acceptance of refugees has eroded the CDU-CSU’s ownership of the immigration issue.
The new peak of social concern about and media attention on immigration issues has aligned badly with an unexpected change in mainstream party strategy. And so the mainstream has not been able to block a more radical anti-immigrant party from entering the debate.
So the success of AfD is due more to changes in mainstream party strategy than to demographic, economic, or ideological changes taking place in German society. This is an important lesson for parties such as Merkel’s and other established groups in Europe.
Perhaps more importantly, it shows that politics matters when it comes to stopping radical anti-immigrant rhetoric. Even if, paradoxically, this does not mean shifting the discourse to more liberal stances on immigration.