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One word seldom associated with European elections in recent months, if not years, is “sleep”. Yet this was precisely how many German pundits labelled this year’s Federal Election campaign: as Chancellor Angela Merkel seemingly effortlessly headed for a fourth consecutive term, the word “Schlafwahlkampf” – literally “sleep election campaign” – made the rounds in the press.

All the ruder was the awakening upon the release of the exit poll at 6pm on 24 September. Whilst Merkel’s Christian Democrats did comfortably defend the pole position in German politics, they did so with less ease than expected: in the end, the “Union” incurred losses of 8%, finishing with its worst result since 1949. A small consolation was the dismal performance of the Social Democrats (SPD): with 20%t of the vote, they faced their worst result in post-war history. Yet what would come to dominate coverage of election night was the seemingly meteoric rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) which entered parliament with a whopping 12.5% – the best result of any newcomer in the history of the Federal Republic. Germany, for long seen as a rock of stability in a stormy Western sea, had eventually also been swept by the populist wave.

How did a seemingly predictable election produce (yet again) such an upset? And what does it mean for Germany and the centre-right?

In the immediate aftermath, many pundits were quick to link the disappointing performance of the Christian Democrats and the ascent of the AfD to the refugee crisis of 2015. In this reading, the nationalists welcomed swathes of disappointed centre-right voters who felt that Merkel had mismanaged the influx of nearly one million migrants. Popular as this narrative is, the data does not fully support it however.

For one, the refugee crisis only mobilised a minority of voters (albeit an important one): only 27% of voters cited “migration” as central to their electoral choice – putting it in fourth place behind education, terrorism, and elderly care. Whilst migration thus clearly did matter to a significant share of voters, it was by no means the all-dominant issue. Equally, the CDU/CSU did not lose as much to the AfD as initially assumed: barely 2% of voters swapped the Christian Democrats for the nationalist alternative. To put this into perspective: the “left block” of SPD, Left Party (Linke), and the Greens lost just as much to the AfD. What did, however, boost the AfD were its traditional base of nationalist voters who had already turned out in force for the party in 2013, as well as almost 1.5 million previous non-voters. Far from draining the Christian Democrat vote therefore, the Alternative for Germany mobilised a wide range of disaffected voters who had turned their back to politics prior to 2015. General anti-establishment sentiment may have thus played as much a part in the AfD’s rise as migration.

Aside from the refugee crisis, what else then in turn signed responsible for the diminution of the CDU/CSU vote? Much suggests that the consensus politics of the Grand Coalition between Social and Christian Democrats played no small part: it is striking that the last time the CDU polled equally weakly was in 2009, after another coalition with the SPD. The reform deadlock and stagnation associated with this alliance pushed many voters into the arms of smaller parties. The fact that the CDU lost more to the liberal FDP than the AfD, mirroring events from 2009, suits this hypothesis. Added to this is a more structural change: the fragmentation of the German electorate. For what many Christian Democrats overlooked in the face of the shock of 24 September was that the party had struggled ever since 1998 to poll above 35% – all while smaller parties such as the Greens, the Left Party, and the FDP consolidated their bases at around 8 to 10%. It was thus the 2013 election with its formidable result for the CDU, not in small part thanks to the FDP’s self-destruction at the time, which should be seen as an outlier. This becomes especially clear when seeing the “long decline of the people’s parties” in Germany: whereas CDU/CSU and SPD commanded 81.3% of the vote in 1987, they together polled only 53.6% in 2017.

Rather than a mere anti-Merkel backlash, the German election result was thus a curious cocktail of protests against the government’s refugee policy, a dislike of consensus politics, anti-establishment sentiment, and the solidification of a more atomised German party-political landscape. For the German centre-right, especially the CDU/CSU, this means that it must consider its next steps carefully and avoid knee-jerk reactions. For a turn to the right, as demanded by the CDU’s conservative wing now, would not necessarily be rewarded by the electorate – rather the opposite: with most AfD voters coming from outside the political mainstream, the CDU risks alienating the middle-ground it has so very successfully monopolised over the past decade if it shifts right. Any attempt to weaken the AfD and restore trust in mainstream politics should hence see an emphasis on non-ideological, sustainable solutions to the challenges of the country, that include but extend well beyond migration.

Henrique Laitenberger is Bright Blue’s Student Ambassador. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.