It’s been an interesting 36 hours in electoral terms – for Europe, for Germany, and indeed for me personally. Why for me? Not because I decided to have fun and take a punt on one of the bewildering array of weird-and-wacky fringe parties who fielded candidates for the European Parliament.

Rather, it’s because I signed up to help instigate the ballot and count the votes. To all the good voters at my polling station here in Hamburg-Nord, thank you for turning out (and for turning a blind eye to my obvious novice status during the first couple of hours…).

Turnout: riding high

This brings us to one positive story which it’s easy to overlook in view of the depressingly predictable electoral gains on the far right: turnout for the European Elections reached a historic high.

After the unpolitical 2000s saw participation plumb the low 40s, 64.8 percent of Germany’s electorate went to the polls yesterday, up again from 61.4 percent in 2019. Touchingly, many of them were just 16 or 17 years old.

This is undoubtedly good news – even if higher turnout tends to benefit non-traditional parties: the rise of the AfD over the last ten years in Germany correlates quite well to renewed voter participation. Yet for all the understandable focus on the AfD’s strong showing, up by 6 percentage points to 15.9 percent, it’s worth noting that a similar 16.9 percent of votes went to a clutch of small parties. As a result, Germany will send 15 AfD candidates to the European Parliament, but also three hard-left Linke members, three from the (albeit somewhat dubious) Freie Wähler list, and three pro-European Volt candidates; two parliamentarians will be even drawn from DIE PARTEI, a satirical outfit similar to the UK’s jokey Monster Raving Loonies.

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AfD: riding slightly less high

Then there is left-wing-populist Sahra Wagenknecht’s new gang, who are only a few months old and already bigger than all of these smaller parties, placing fifth in the polls with 6.2 percent.

To be fair to her, Wagenknecht has said from day one that her aim is to provide an alternative to the Alternative for people who want things to be like they used to be (Big State, big hair, small number of immigrants) but don’t want to overthrow democracy. It seems that she’s doing precisely that: a few months back, the AfD was polling north of 20 percent in almost all surveys, and besides their candidates’ various scandals, we can also presume that Wagenknecht’s move has something to do with its slightly underwhelming performance.

I say all this not distract from the worrying strength of the German far-right, but to underline that this was not a landslide or a clean sweep for the proto-fascists: 85 percent of the electorate did not cast their vote for a party which is currently under secret-service surveillance for undermining democracy.

The former East: a new low

Which, of course, leads us to the 15 percent who did just that – and the 20 percent to 30 percent who did likewise in the local elections held concurrently in most eastern German states. With a 28.1 percent share of the vote for AfD, local councils in Saxony-Anhalt, for instance, are now looking a particularly deep shade of blue. Worse, this is without full results from Thuringia or the party’s heart(less)land Saxony, where it wouldn’t be surprising for the party to finish over 30 percent…

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This is, while by no means unexpected, very bad news – on many levels. Firstly, it means that a lot of local authorities in the former East can no longer function without the AfD – a party which, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, has certified fascist personnel in states such as Thuringia and is under observation. Secondly, we know that voting patterns tend to change first at local level before solidifying at regional, then federal level.

The local elections are therefore a foretaste of this autumn’s state-level polls in Thuringia and Saxony, where we can expect scores of over 30 percent for the AfD. A third of the vote going to the far-right will force literally every other serious party to sit down and negotiate in order to govern around them. This is both tricky in the short term and, paradoxically, good for the AfD in the long term because it feeds into their narrative that ‘all the other parties are just the same’. What is more, it increases the likelihood that one of the major parties will succumb to temptation and start cooperating with the fascists to get into power.

The former West: where governments are made

One quantum of solace: while the AfD is likely to become the biggest party in Saxony’s and Thuringia’s regional parliaments this autumn, this doesn’t automatically translate into a similarly strong performance in the next national polls in 2025. Yes, they may score over 20 percent in the local elections in eastern states, but here in Hamburg, it’s the Greens, SPD, and CDU who are getting that share of the vote; the AfD is on single figures. It’s a similar story in Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, whose local elections also coincided with the European ballot yesterday.

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In a national poll, voting patterns in the eastern states are, quite simply, of less importance. And in much of western Germany, which is home to four fifths of the country’s population, the AfD was never as strong as in the former East – and has taken a tumble in recent months following revelations about its plans to deport millions (and its candidates’ habits of trousering millions of another sort).

Core votes becoming visible

One notable thing about Sunday’s elections is that they help to reveal the hard contours of parties’ core votes.

The Greens have had an absolutely terrible two years, as have the Liberals – and have come out bloodied, but not obliterated. Yes, even now, almost 12 percent of the German electorate is still voting Green in Europe; the FDP is still at 5 percent. These are core supporters who are standing by their parties – and will probably do so in next year’s federal elections. By the same token, though, we can expect the AfD to pull in a good 15 percent of the vote. After all, they too have had a bruising campaign: having two candidates investigated for espionage and being told by Marine Le Pen that you’re too racist is not exactly ideal. So the 15.9 percent who voted for them in the European Elections are going to do so however much lower they sink. They won’t, however, be able to pick up potentially ‘far-right-curious’ right-of-centre voters unless they smarten up.

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Instead, most floating voters seem to have coalesced around the CDU/CSU, stripping the SPD back to a painfully low core of 13.9 percent. The question for a party of government like the SPD will be how to get those floating voters back on side.

One piece of advice from me: don’t try copying the Partei für schulmedizinische Verjüngungsforschung, one of the mad little parties I decided not to vote for whose shtick is to finance research into extreme longevity. Because let me tell you: I don’t want to live to be 500 years old – I already feel quite old enough after helping out the elections…

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