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BERLIN – An overwhelming victory for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a small federal state in the east made German pollsters and experts ask a big question: Why didn’t we see it coming?
In the run-up to the elections on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt, polls had put Merkel’s CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) head to head. Some even had the AfD in the first place. This has generated a lot of concern and concern among mainstream German politicians and media, especially since the national parliamentary elections are barely more than three months away.
Yet the end result wasn’t nearly as close. The center-right CDU received 37.1 percent of the vote, while the AfD took second place with 20.8 percent. The result of the CDU was almost 10 percentage points above the result in the polls a few days before the vote. His margin of victory was more than 16 percentage points – a world away from the small single-digit lead that the polls suggested.
“This shows that moods and surveys do not decide elections, but voters”, the CDU leader and candidate for Merkel’s successor in the federal elections in September, Armin Laschet, crowed in front of reporters. “This is a good day for the CDU and for democracy in Germany.”
Others said, however, that the polls themselves played a role, as voters, alarmed by the prospect of an AfD victory, rallied behind the CDU and its popular Prime Minister Reiner Haseloff.
“We have managed to make citizens aware of what it would have meant if the polls published shortly before election day turned out to be true,” said Haseloff.
Tarik Abou-Chadi, assistant professor of political science at the University of Zurich, said there was probably no simple explanation for the surprising result. “The main question is: Were the surveys wrong or did people change their behavior? It’s probably a bit of both, ”he said.
On the survey side, Abou-Chadi said it was more difficult to conduct accurate surveys in small federal states like Saxony-Anhalt, which is home to around 2.2 million people. In addition, such states are not often in the national political limelight, so that many polls are not conducted there. That means that the researchers lack empirical data, said Abou-Chadi.
In politics, one reason for the CDU’s success, experts said, was that Haseloff distanced himself significantly from the AfD (in contrast to the flirtation of some CDU bosses in East Germany with the extreme right). A vote for Haseloff was therefore seen by many as a vote against the radical right.
While the turnout of 60.3 percent fell slightly compared to the last state election in 2016, the CDU was able to win over 61,000 voters who stayed at home last time.
Although the AfD was way ahead of other parties in second place, the result was still a blow to the far-right party. In the second half of the last decade it experienced a huge surge in popularity in the former communist East Germany, in large part due to a strong anti-immigrant attitude.
The AfD shook up the political landscape of Saxony-Anhalt in 2016 when it took part in a state election for the first time with 24.3 percent of the vote. This time it had to be content with a score of more than four percentage points lower.
The state association of Saxony-Anhalt is considered extreme even for AfD conditions. It has been monitored by the German domestic secret service since January 2021.
Data showed that many of her votes in Sunday’s election came from young men, but she lost a significant percentage of her voters to the CDU.
“The willingness of voters to change their party is greater in East Germany. We have been observing this since the 1990s, ”says Peter Matuschek from the opinion research institute Forsa.