extremism & populism
Mar 15

Elections in the Time of Migrant Crisis

Hana Lipovská [1]

Landtag elections are widely classified as second order elections (Loughlin et al. 2012). The March elections in three German federal states changed this traditional point of view substantially. The three German federal states ­­– Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate – are considerably different in their historical background, population structure as well as economic conditions. However, in all three states the March elections turned into a referendum on the governmental migration policy. A clear winner of this referendum seems to be the new political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany). Let us briefly introduce these three extremely diverse states.

Baden-Württemberg is the third largest German state in terms of population as well as the area. As the former part of West Germany is belongs among the more developed German countries, its Gross Domestic Product per capita being the 5th highest in the recent Federal Republic of Germany. Its regional GDP accounts for nearly 15% of the total German GDP (being the 3rd highest). This is in line with unemployment rate that is the lowest among the German states (4%, February 2016). As for the economic structure, Baden-Württemberg employment in industry is above the German average (31% in comparison to the national 25%). In the light of these results, it is not very surprising that the citizens of Baden-Württemberg consider their economy as good (92% according to the Eurobarometer), which makes it the second most optimistic state after Bayern.

In spite of the fact that Rhineland-Palatinate also used to belong to West Germany, its economic level is substantially below the German average (GDP p.c. being the 10th largest from the 16 German states). Nevertheless, its unemployment rate is still the third lowest in Germany (5.5%, February 2016). Roughly 80% of Eurobarometer respondents assess economic conditions in the region as good, just 15% consider the economic situation as the main problem of the state.

Finally, Saxony-Anhalt, a former part of East Germany, belongs to the smaller and poorer German states with GDP p.c. being the 14th highest from the 16 countries. Similarly, its unemployment rate of 10.8% is the 2nd highest in Germany (February 2016), well above the German average of 6.7%. Both Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate have above-average occupation in agriculture (2.2% in comparison to the national 1.5%) and industry (above 26% in comparison to the national 24.7%). The citizens of Saxony-Anhalt are consequently the most pessimistic in terms of the economic situation in their region: 42% of Eurobarometer respondents assess the economic situation as bad and only 50% as good. Moreover, 19% of them consider the economic situation as the most important problem of the region.

The crucial theme of the Landtag elections was without any doubt the migrant crisis. In 2015, 8.2 million foreigners lived in Germany, which is the highest number since 1967 when this census started. The country recorded rapid annual increase by 6.8%, with the largest share of the Turks (1.5 million).

The recent migrant crisis accelerates the increase of foreigners in Germany, including the three countries in interest. In 2015, roughly 317,000 migrants came to Baden-Württemberg, a number which represents nearly 3% of the state´s total population. Similarly, 92,000 migrants headed to Rhineland-Palatinate (2.3% of the population) and 42,000 to Saxony-Anhalt (2% of the population).

Immigration is being seen as the most important problem in most of the German states. According to the Eurobarometer, immigration is considered to be the biggest problem in Baden-Württemberg (54%), which is the second largest number after Bayern (60%). People in Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt are somewhat less worried about immigration, in Saxony-Anhalt fear of unemployment even prevails over the immigration threat. (see Figure 1).

Immigration policy turned out be an important theme of the Landtag elections as well. According to the results of Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, this theme was important for the election decision of 69% of the electorate in Baden-Württemberg, 65% in Rhineland-Palatinate and 62% in Sachsen-Anhalt. Almost 50% of the respondents in these three countries believe that Angela Merkel handled the immigration policy badly.


Figure 1: What do you think are the two most importatnt issues our region is facing at the moment?

 Source: Flash Eurobarometer 427 (2015)


The economic structure is in line with the traditional election results in these three states. In the post-communist Saxony-Anhalt, the former communist party PDS (renamed to Die Linke, “Left”, in 2005) has been the second strongest after the liberal conservative party Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Since 1991, all Landtag elections have been won by the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD). Just in economically strong Baden-Württemberg the CDU had held an unshakable position since 1952 winning all the elections from 1952 to 2011, often gaining an absolute majority.

In spite of these deep-rooted differences, all three states supported in the 2013 federal elections Merkel´s cabinet. The CDU won with a 25% margin over the SPD in Baden-Württemberg, 17% margin over Die Linke in Saxony-Anhalt and 16% margin over the SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate. Nevertheless, already in these elections the AfD won the first success when it reached 5.2% in Baden-Württemberg, 4.8% in Rhineland-Palatinate and 4.2% in Saxony-Anhalt (see Figure 2).


 Figure 2: Results of the federal elections in Germany in 2013


 Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016)


The opinion polls from 10th March 2016 suggested disruption of this traditional distribution of power. Nevertheless, they did not predict such a deep fall of the CDU (which received 2-3% less than predicted), nor the great success of the AfD which received 4-6.3% more than predicted (see Figure 3).


Figure 3: Difference between the results of Landtag elections and opinion polls in 2016

Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016); Opinion Polls from 10th March 2016


The 2016 Landtag elections brought several changes. First of all, they were the first elections since 1952, which the CDU in Baden-Württemberg lost (by margin 3.3 pp.) to the left-wing party Die Grünen (the Green Party). Merkel’s CDU lost also in Rhineland-Palatine, in comparison to 2011 it did not lose mere 0.5%, but 4.4% to the winning SPD. The only state where the CDU managed to win was Saxony-Anhalt (see Figure 6). However, there it gained only 5.5 pp. more than the second on the tape AfD (29.8% in comparison to 24.3%). Alternative für Deutschland became the real winner of the March elections winning (with 15.1%) the third position in Baden-Württemberg (before the governmental SPD, see Figure 4). The AfD succeeded also in Rhineland-Palatinate (see Figure 5), where it gained nearly 13% and came third after the SPD and the CDU.


Figure 4: Results of Baden-Württemberg Landtag elections of 2016

 Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016)


Figure 5: Results of Rhineland-Palatinate Landtag elections of 2016

 Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016)


Figure 6: Results of Saxony-Anhalt Landtag elections of 2016

  Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016)


In comparison to the 2011 Landtag elections the right-wing party AfD gained in 2016 especially the votes of those citizens who did not vote in 2011 or who voted for smaller parties. In all three states it won over votes predominantly of the CDU (almost one third of AfD voters voted for the CDU in Baden-Württemberg in 2011), the SPD and in Saxony-Anhalt of Die Linke (17 % of former voters voted for AfD, see Figure 7).


Figure 7: Who the voters of AfD voted for in Landtag elections of 2011?

Source: Forschungsgruppe Wahlen (2016)


Despite the considerable achievement of AfD, the votes for this Eurosceptic party are to be mainly understood as protest votes in an imaginary referendum about Angela Merkel’s immigrant policy. According to the first results of the coalition talks, the governments remain unchanged in all three states (e.g. Spiegel 2016). In Saxony-Anhalt, where AfD reached only 5 mandates less than the winning CDU, the coalition will consist of the CDU, the SPD and Die Grünen (the so called “Kenya coalition” will have a two-seat majority). The most powerful coalition can be formed in Baden-Württemberg, where the existing government parties the CDU and Die Grünen have a seventeen-seat majority. In Rhineland-Palatinate Die Grünen lost two-thirds of the seats, nevertheless, even there should continue the coalition formed by the recent governing parties the SPD, the FDP and Die Grünen. This coalition, however, will enjoy just one-seat majority in Rhineland-Palatinate Landtag (see Figure 8).


Figure 8: Mandates distribution after Landtag elections of 2016

Source: Der Bundeswahlleiter (2016)
Note: Number of Landtag members varies by country.


We have shown that three German federal states – Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate – suitably represent the whole Germany in terms of economic situation as well as citizen opinions. The remarkable success of AfD, while not reflected in the post-election coalition talks, is the result of German dissatisfaction with the central government immigration policy. This message is even more important when we take into account a very high voter turnout (62%–71%, which is approximately 10 pp. higher than in 2011).


[1] Vaclav Klaus Institute & Faculty of Economics and Administration, Masaryk University (lipovska@mail.muni.cz)



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  • Bundeswahlleiter: https://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/de/
  • Eurobarometer: Flash Eurobarometer 427 (3-23/09 2015)
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  • European Commission – Rhineland-Palatinate:
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  • Statistisches Bundesamt: https://www.destatis.de/DE  
  • Unemployment rate: