Chartbook 235: Who is driving Germany’s far-right poll surge?

Europe’s centrist political class is looking anxiously towards elections for the European Parliament in 2024. What they fear is a “lurch” to the far-right. 

In Germany the AfD has surged to joint second place with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD in the polls. At 19 percent the AfD’s support is roughly twice what it was at the time of the last Bundestag election in September 2021. 

Does this reflect a right-ward shift in German public opinion? Or, is a tactical reaction by German voters who are signaling their dissatisfaction with particular policies? If so, what is most on their minds. 

An interesting poll by Instituts für Demoskopie Allensbach commissioned by the FAZ and summarized by Thomas Petersen gives some answers. 

The short answer is that there is no evidence for a strong right-ward shift in German public opinion over the last few years. 

To establish this fact Allensbach uses a general index of political alignment based on responses to prompts designed to identify (1) general conservative positions, such as „Are there are too many foreigners in Germany?”, (2) populist attitudes, such as “we live in a mock democracy”, and (3) more extreme attitudes including the use of violence to challenge “the system” and hostility to the “influence of Jews in world affairs”.

On this basis, 2 percent of the German population qualifies as belonging to the neo-Nazi spectrum (Rechtsradikal) and 12 percent have far-right and authoritarian views. At the other end of the spectrum there is 1 percent left-radical and 7 percent extreme left. None of these figures have changed significantly since the Allensbach team last conducted such a survey, in 2019. 

It remains true that only 20 percent of Germans think the AfD is a “normal” democratic party versus 71 percent who have their doubts. 

Only in East Germany has the share who are willing to normalize the AfD risen from 21 to 32 percent but there too, a solid majority regard the AfD as a danger to democracy. Indeed, since 2017 across Germany as a whole, the share of those who regard the AfD as a serious threat has risen. 

So the underlying political attitudes of the German population do not appear to have lurched to the right and this cannot explain the current standing of the AfD in the polls. 

Amongst who count as AfD supporters, people with neo-Nazi attitudes make up roughly 13 percent. Those with far-right authoritarian attitudes account for another 43, which means that 44 percent of those expressing support for the party do so without a general identification with far-right politics. 

What motivates them to make such a political choice? 

The Allensbach study allows us to dig into this question with some precision. Amongst the 44 percent of AfD supporters who do not generally hold a neo-Nazi or far-right worldview, 87 percent said they were very concerned about the flow of refugees to Germany. 

That is 31 percentage points higher than for the population at large. 73 percent said they were concerned about violence and criminality. These concerns overshadow all other issues such as climate policy or the war in Ukraine, on which AfD takes distinctive positions.

You might wonder how someone who, on account of their xenophobia was willing too support the AfD, could not be counted as at least far-right in their political views. This is a reflection of the Allesnbach methodology which scores respondents on their responses to the 10 prompts. Only those giving 5 positive responses count as far-right and 7 as “rechtsradikal”. So if xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia are your thing, but you do not “otherwise” have right-wing preferences, you fall outside the Allensbach classification.

Another way of thinking about the distinction may be in terms of the purpose behind expressed political views. For about half the AfD’s potential electorate, their vote is a matter of conviction. But for on top of that for a large part of the AfD’s electorate their preference is a way of signaling – presumably to what they take to be the mainstream – that they are dissatisfied with the status quo and do not believe that their voices will otherwise be heard. When asked why they might consider voting for the AfD at the next election – as 22 percent of those in survey said they would do – 78 percent said that it would be a sign that they were unhappy with “current policies” with 71 mentioning migration policy, in particular. 

As the Allenbach data identify, the urgency of this protest is itself distinctive of AfD voters. In response to the prompt, “I am firmly convinced that our society is inexorably headed towards a major crisis. With our current means we cannot address it. We can only manage if we fundamentally change our political system”, 62 percent of AfD supporters agreed v. 30 percent in the population at large.

En passant, the contrast between the Greens and the AfD on this question is remarkably stark. Only 11 percent of Greens, the lowest of all parties, believe in a systemic crisis that requires radical change. It confirms in dramatic fashion that the Greens are no longer a party of “fundi” eco-radicals, but have become the party of eco-modernity, the ultimate “staatstragende” (state-supporting) party of the Federal Republic. 


Overall, the conclusion of the surveys seems quite clear. There has not been a general shift to the right. In addition to a base of far-right wing support, which makes up 15 percent of the population, the AfD is attracting a protest vote that takes it to slightly more than 20 percent support. This is driven by dissatisfaction with migration policy and a general fear of societal crisis. 

What is striking is the conclusion drawn by Thomas Petersen and the FAZ editors from the Allensbach results, which I loosely translate as follows: 

AfD supporters see Germany’s migration policy as a catastrophe. Until “Politik” (policy … mainstream policy AT) “gets a grip on this problem” and until it stops creating the impression “with citizens” that it treats anyone who is concerned about migration with condescension and moral superiority, the appeals of the AfD will continue to fall on fertile soil.

What is striking about this framing is that it accepts the AfD’s definition of a “problem” – their view that migration policy is catastrophic. It also accepts their populist terms for discussing it i.e. there are regular people – the participants in the survey – and it is up to “policy” (Politik) to respond to them. One might also simply say that in German democracy distinct constituencies are represented by different political parties with different views on what policy should be. In the resulting debate and policy process, which seeks to respond to a huge global problem of displacement, poverty and violence, they make choices that leave a minority of Germans dissatisfied. Half of the dissatisfied group (c. 10-15 percent of the overall electorate) are confirmed neo-Nazis and far-right authoritarians. The other chunk – less than 10 percent – are engaged in the politics of protest rather than responsibility, aligning themselves with a party in which neo-Nazis and the far-right is a powerful presence, presumably with a view to pushing the CDU further to the right. From a centrist point of view this is regrettable, but it is hard to see why this should be a cause for panic or any exaggerated concern about elitism. The real concern is presumably that substantial slices of the CDU are actually minded to join the far-right in this populist discourse. 29 percent of CDU supporters believe in an inexorable crisis that requires systemic change, the second highest after the AfD. In that regard the slippage in the conclusion of the FAZ piece – the FAZ being the conservative paper of record – from descriptive statistics to prescription is telling. 


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