The populist revolt that shook conservative Bavaria

AfD supporters march in Bavaria, where the party won 12.4 per cent of the vote in September’s election

To the uninitiated, the picturesque Bavarian town of Ingolstadt seems an oasis of calm. In fact it is the scene of a stunning political revolt.

In national elections last month the rightwing Alternative for Germany scored one of its best results here, scooping up 15 per cent of the vote. Ever since, experts have been trying to figure out why this prosperous corner of Bavaria has become such a stronghold of the AfD, a party that tends to attract the angry, excluded and alienated.

Asked why he voted for the populists, Karl-Heinz Resch, a 55-year-old from north-east Ingolstadt, does not mince his words. “The established parties with their asylum bullshit are ruining Germany,” he says.

Since the election, much attention has focused on the AfD’s strong showing in the former communist east. Political scientists have noted the party’s strong appeal among “globalisation’s losers”, people “left behind” by technological and social change who have become part of a vast “precariat” with little income security.

Yet none of that explains why the AfD won 12.4 per cent in Bavaria, one of Germany’s richest states — its best result in western Germany. In one ward of Piusviertel, a northern neighbourhood of Ingolstadt, it scored an astonishing 35 per cent.

Underpinning the AfD’s success was simmering anger over Ms Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in more than 1m refugees, many of whom entered via border crossings in Bavaria.

“It was a huge issue here because people saw the massive influx with their own eyes,” says Christina Wilhelm, a local AfD leader. “They were alarmed that so many people came in without any kind of control and no one really knew who they were.”

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Bavaria’s leaders have scrambled to assuage this anger. In Berlin this week, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, meeting ahead of talks on forming a governing coalition with the Greens and liberal FDP, agreed to limit net refugee immigration to 200,000 a year.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer had long demanded such a cap, and experts say Ms Merkel’s refusal to countenance the idea was one of the reasons the CSU did so badly in the September election: it slumped 10.5 per cent to 38 per cent, scoring its worst result since 1949.

Ms Wilhelm says the CSU’s failure to get its way on migrants before the election enraged Bavaria’s conservative voters. “The party did badly because Seehofer lost all credibility in many voters’ eyes,” she says. “He made promises he couldn’t keep.”

The legacy of the refugee surge of 2015-16 is easy to find in Ingolstadt. The city has a massive transit centre housing hundreds of migrants with little prospect of being allowed to stay in Germany — many of them Nigerians. Authorities have no interest in trying to integrate them, because most are likely to be deported. Frustration and boredom are rife.

The town hall in Ingolstadt, where fears over Germany losing its cultural identity were important in driving voters into the arms of the AfD © Alamy

“The sight of ten Africans walking down the street might not be novel for Hamburg or Berlin, but it is for Ingolstadt,” says Christian De Lapuente, the local Social Democrat chairman. “A lot of people here just can’t deal with people from a different culture.”

Such views underline how fears about Germany losing its cultural and national identity were sometimes more important in driving voters into the arms of the AfD than economic arguments. It is one reason the AfD did so well in Ingolstadt, a town that boasts Audi and Airbus factories and almost full employment.

But economic concerns also played a role, says Mr De Lapuente. “Not everyone’s doing well here — a lot of people are really struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “And the ones who are doing well are scared of losing what they have.” The presence of so many refugees only exacerbated that fear, he says.

Support for the AfD was particularly high among the “Aussiedler”, ethnic Germans from Russia who moved back to their homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union.

There are 20,000 of them in Ingolstadt, about 15 per cent of the population. Helmut Schels, the local government’s head of statistics, says an analysis of 107 polling stations in the town showed that the “greater the proportion of ethnic German immigrants, the higher the share of the vote for the AfD”.

Indeed the populists deliberately tailored their campaign to the Aussiedler, printing flyers and manifestos in Russian, and canvassing outside Russian shops and other businesses in places like the Piusviertel, a big Russian-German neighbourhood.

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Mr De Lapuente says many of the Russian-Germans are in badly-paid work and on welfare, and are “envious” of the refugees. “During the campaign they would say to us: how come they all have smartphones and nice clothes? I had to work 30 years to get the little I have,” he says.

The AfD was also able to tap a huge pool of people who normally never vote at all. “Turnout was traditionally low in places like the Piusviertel — but in September’s election it went up from 40 to 50 per cent there,” says Mr Schels.

That is a view supported by Reinhard Brandl, the local CSU MP, who says many of the AfD’s backers were voting for the first time in their lives. “They clearly didn’t know what to do — they didn’t even bring their voting cards with them,” he says.

The conclusion he draws from that is that the AfD’s success was “mainly a protest vote”. “Most of those who backed them didn’t read their manifesto and didn’t know who their candidate was,” he says. “All they knew was that the AfD wants to curb immigration.”

That was definitely the main attraction for Karl-Heinz Resch. He says more immigrants mean more sexual attacks on women, more exotic diseases, more crime.

“People just feel there are way too many of them,” he says. “We’ve been overrun.”

This post originally appeared on Financial Times

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