Blog Post

What has driven the votes for Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland?

The AfD vote in East Germany was consistently stronger than in the West, even after controlling for income, age, education, religion and the overall rural nature of the new Bundesländer.

By: and Date: October 5, 2017 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Last Sunday’s federal election in Germany’s federal election gave unprecedented strength to the right wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD is the third-largest party, with 12.6% of the votes and 94 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag (since the election, two members have left the AfD parliamentary group).

Much commentary has focused on why, where and how this has happened. Some focus purely on demographic factors (old vs young) or economic factors (unemployment, income). Others have claimed that the AfD’s higher vote in the east of Germany is not a reflection of higher unemployment in the region, but can in fact be traced back to the specific history of East Germany. Many emphasise more strongly the urban-rural divide, while yet another line of thinking argues that it is immigration and the presence of foreigners that has been driving the vote for the AfD.

The FT has put together a useful collection of graphs highlighting that the strength of a district’s vote for the AfD is correlated with a higher average age, an older population and being in East Germany and putting significant emphasis on the negative correlation with number of foreigners in the district.  This week, the FT has published a piece which goes beyond the initial bi-plot analysis and stresses the importance of East Germany in explaining AfD votes. Yet, to our knowledge, there is still no systematic statistical evaluation of these various factors, trying to control for and separate their various impacts.

In this blog post, we provide a systematic analysis of the results, based on data covering the 299 electoral districts of Germany. We are able to include in our analysis several variables that capture:

(a) demographic characteristics

(b) education

(c) religion

(d) presence of foreigners

(e) economic factors such as income and unemployment rate

(f) regional characteristics such as East/West and population density

We analyse the data with a standard cross-sectional regression analysis and also explore the stability of our results under changes in specification. The table summarising the results can be found at the bottom of the article. The main results can be summarised as follows.

(1) East-West divide: Former East Germany voted much more strongly for the AfD than the rest of the country, even after controlling for a large set of other socio-economic factors.

(2) Rural areas: Districts with lower population density voted more for the AfD than cities and densely populated regions.

(3) Age: Districts with a larger percentages of old people tended to vote more for AfD.

(4) Migration matters: A higher share of foreigners increased the vote for the AfD. That result is in direct contrast to a simple bi-plot (as presented by the FT) which suggests that districts with high number of foreigners voted less for AfD – this is confused by other factors that correlate with a high presence of foreigners. In contrast, electoral districts that saw more significant inflow of people (both foreign and domestic) in 2015 were less prone to vote for AfD. The latter result could reflect deliberate decisions on where refugees were distributed to.

(5) Church membership: Electoral districts with larger percentages of catholic or protestant church membership voted less for the AfD than electoral districts with higher shares of non-membership in these two churches.

(6) Education: Districts with lower education tended to vote more for AfD, while districts with higher shares of higher education voted less for AfD.

(7) Income: Higher disposable household income is associated with lower shares of AfD votes. However, surprisingly, unemployment is negatively associated with AfD votes: higher unemployment makes an area less likely to vote for the AfD.

Overall, it is striking that these factors explain a very substantial part of the overall variation in AfD votes. This model can account for more than 70% of the variation. It is also important to highlight that all factors matter.

In particular, we found the strength of the “East” factor remarkable. For example, at first glance the chart suggests that German electoral districts with high unemployment tended to vote more strongly for AfD.

In particular, we found the strength of the “East” factor remarkable. For example, at first glance the chart suggests that German electoral districts with high unemployment tended to vote more strongly for AfD.

However, looking more closely, the clear structural divide in voting behaviour is in fact between East and West Germany. As our regression analysis shows, the positive association between unemployment and votes for the AfD vanishes once we control for the East-West divide and other factors such as population density, economic strength, education and religion. So the East is indeed different in terms of voting behaviour as it is different in terms of socio-economic characteristics.

All in all, our analysis suggests that Germany remains politically a divided country.

Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author


Scholz's improved plan to complete the banking union

The head of German Finance has written in the Financial Times defending the need to deepen the banking union, now London is about to leave

By: Rebecca Christie Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 8, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author


Schaut in die Region!

Die deutsche Industriepolitik folgt bisher keiner klaren Strategie, sondern ist von Unternehmensinteressen getrieben. Das ist der falsche Weg.

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: October 29, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author


The Case for Intelligent Industrial Policy

Although national industrial policies have a bad reputation, there is a strong case for government support to sectors that will increasingly rely on artificial intelligence. In this regard, the German government’s plan to promote production of electric-car batteries may accelerate an industrial renaissance in Europe.

By: Dalia Marin Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 7, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author


Germany’s Divided Soul

Eastern Germans vote, think, and feel differently than western Germans do, as the results of the September 1 regional elections make clear. To help tackle the underlying economic causes of this divide, the federal government should introduce incentives to encourage foreign investment in the east of the country.

By: Dalia Marin Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 13, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author


Why Europe needs a change of mind-set to fend off the risks of recession

Recession! This is the new worry in Europe and the US. A simple look at google trends shows that in Germany, France and the US, search interest for recession peaked in the last weeks. In Italy, the peak already occurred end of January. Whether a recession is actually occurring is difficult to gauge in real time. But there can be no doubt that significant risks such as the trade war and no-deal Brexit exist.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 2, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Talking about Europe: Die Zeit and Der Spiegel 1940s-2010s

An on-going research project is seeking to quantify and analyse printed media discourses about Europe over the decades since the end of the Second World War. A first snapshot screened more than 2.8 million articles in Le Monde between 1944 and 2018. In this second instalment we carry out an analogous exercise on a dataset of more the 500 thousand articles from two German weekly magazines: Die Zeit and Der Spiegel. We also report on the on-going work to refine the quantitative methodology.

By: Enrico Bergamini, Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol, Francesco Papadia and Giuseppe Porcaro Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 18, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

‘Lo spread’: The collateral damage of Italy’s confrontation with the EU

The authors assess whether the European Commission's actions towards Italy since September 2018 have had a visible impact on the spread between Italian sovereign-bond yields and those of Germany, and particularly whether the Commission’s warnings have acted as a ‘signalling device’ for bond-market participants that it might be difficult for Italy to obtain the support of the ESM or the ECB’s OMT programme if needed.

By: Grégory Claeys and Jan Mazza Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 8, 2019
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

It’s hard to live in the city: Berlin’s rent freeze and the economics of rent control

A proposal in Berlin to ban increases in rent for the next five years sparked intense debate in Germany. Similar policies to the Mietendeckel are currently being discussed in London and NYC. All three proposals reflect and raise similar concerns – the increase in per-capita incomes is not keeping pace with increases in rents, but will a cap do more harm than good? We review recent views on the matter.

By: Inês Goncalves Raposo Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 8, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The latest European growth-rate estimates

The quarterly growth rate of the euro area in Q1 2019 was 0.4% (1.5% annualized), considerably higher than the low growth rates of the previous two quarters. This blog reviews the reaction to the release of these numbers and the discussion they have triggered about the euro area’s economic challenges.

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 20, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Germany’s even larger than expected fiscal surpluses: Is there a link with the constitutional debt brake?

Germany is having a political debate on the adjustment of its budgetary plans due to revised forecasts, and an academic debate on the debt brake. Yet, since 2011, general government revenues and surpluses have been systematically and significantly higher than forecast. The German surplus reached 1.7% of GDP in 2018. This bias did not exist from 1999-2008 before the introduction of the debt brake. While the IMF also got its forecasts of German surpluses wrong, the extent of the bias is larger for the German government’s forecasts. These data suggest that the political debate should focus on the debt brake and its implementation rather than on how to close the budgetary ‘hole’.

By: Catarina Midoes and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 13, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author


ICT revolution key to populist political surge

Developments in digital technology have prompted a ‘tabloidisation’ of traditional media, created opportunities for the misuse of information online, and closed the decision-making horizon for politicians.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: April 4, 2019
Read article More by this author


New EU industrial policy can only succeed with focus on completion of single market and public procurement

France and Germany recently unveiled a manifesto for a European industrial policy fit for the 21st century, sparking a lively debate across the continent. The fundamental idea underpinning the manifesto is a good one: Europe does need an industrial policy to ensure that EU companies remain highly competitive globally, notwithstanding strong competition from China and other big players. However, the Franco-German priorities are unsuitable for the pursuit of this goal.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: March 18, 2019
Load more posts