The Alternative for Germany long seemed to be little more than a regional rump party, the voice of disgruntled voters in the former communist east but a political earthquake changed all that on Sunday night.

In two critical elections in the affluent, highly industrialised western half of Germany the far-right AfD’s share of the vote increased massively, confirming its status as a nationwide force that its leaders say is on the way to power.

“The AfD is no longer an eastern phenomenon — it is an all-German, mainstream party ,” said Alice Weidel, co-chair. “Voters have clearly swung from left to right.”

The elections in Hesse, in central Germany, and Bavaria in the south were both won by mainstream conservative parties. However, the AfD also performed strongly, garnering 14.6 per cent in Bavaria and 18.4 per cent in Hesse, its best result in a western state.

Centrist politicians expressed dismay. Parts of the AfD have been designated extremist by German domestic intelligence and one of its leaders is to stand trial for using banned Nazi slogans. A former AfD MP was arrested last year over her role in an alleged plot by radicals to overthrow the national government.

Yet none of that seems to be deterring voters, who are abandoning traditional parties in droves to put their crosses next to the AfD.

The results of Sunday’s elections may have been a triumph for the AfD but they were disastrous for the three parties in Germany’s governing coalition — Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the liberal FDP, all of whose votes shrank.

Voters seemed to be punishing them for everything from high inflation, recession and surging energy costs to a jump in irregular immigration that is straining towns and villages nationwide.

“Migration is a complex issue and people are choosing the simple answers offered by rightwing populists,” said Saskia Esken, co-leader of the Social Democrats. “But these only have the appearance of answers.”

Immigration clearly played a role: 80 per cent of voters in Hesse and Bavaria said in exit polls they wanted a “fundamentally different asylum and refugee policy — so fewer people come to us”.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats performed disastrously in Hesse and Bavaria on Sunday © Liesa Johannssen/Reuters

Yet the issue is only one explanation for the AfD’s rise.

Manfred Güllner of pollsters Forsa said frustration with Scholz’s government predated the surge in refugee numbers and had more to do with climate policies, in particular a law to phase out gas-fired boilers and replace them with heat pumps.

“A majority of German citizens was and still is against the decision to switch off the country’s nuclear power stations, against a rise in guaranteed basic income, against the ban on gas heating systems and against the ban on combustion engines in cars,” he said. These are all policies the AfD opposes.

The party also benefited from the constant squabbling between SPD, Greens and FDP which has held up much cabinet business.

“The AfD’s success had a lot to do with the chaos and conflict in the federal government,” said Boris Rhein, leader of the winning party in Hesse, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union.

Greens and liberals in Hesse and Bavaria admitted that dissatisfaction with Scholz’s coalition had cast a long shadow. “None of the parties in the government got a boost [from Berlin],” said Tarek al-Wazir, leader of the Greens in Hesse. “We had a real uphill fight.”

But underlying Sunday’s results was an important shift in the AfD’s electorate that could have big implications for opposition politics for years to come. AfD supporters were long seen as classic protest voters who wanted to convey their discontent to powers-that-be in Berlin. That is changing.

Exit polls on Sunday showed that 38 per cent of voters who chose the AfD did so out of conviction, not protest. In Bavaria the proportion was higher — 47 per cent. Voters from all other parties had defected to the AfD, Weidel said, proving “we have established ourselves in all sections of the electorate”.

Robert Lambrou, the party’s top candidate in Hesse, cited data showing that 15 per cent of first-time voters put their crosses by the AfD. “You see from the numbers that something is changing in west Germany,” he said.

AfD policies proposed in Hesse — limiting “mass immigration”, reducing property transfer tax, a kind of stamp duty, and reintroducing nuclear power — “reflect the will of the majority”, Lambrou said.

Despite the AfD’s newfound success, it remains a fringe movement. All of the other parties have erected a “firewall” around it, insisting they will never co-operate or form coalitions with it — either on federal or regional level.

Weidel said Sunday’s results underscored the absurdity of the firewall, a policy she said meant “millions of voters are being excluded” from the political process. “This contempt and disdain for the AfD, this exclusion of the party from government is, in the long run, untenable,” she said. “The firewall is deeply undemocratic.”

Weidel’s allies predict the firewall will not survive for long — especially in eastern states where the AfD polls at above 30 per cent and other parties may struggle to form workable coalitions without it.

“In the next 1-2 years we’re going to see a coalition [with the AfD] on the regional level — whether in Hesse or some other state,” said Lambrou. “We are ready for more.”

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