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  • Tilman Voss

Quo vadis, Deutschland? A country shaken by scandals and protests expects regional elections that could shape domestic politics for years to come

Since the start of 2024, Germany has been shattered by protests from farmers, railway workers, and the demonstrations against the right-wing party's secret plan of "Remigration". Tillman Voss discusses the context and repercussions of the public outrage, as well as implications for the future after the upcoming regional elections in Germany.

Tilman Voss

Germany has seen a turbulent start to the new year. Weeks of farmer protests, accompanied by strikes of railway employees, paralyzed the country and painfully showed the growing discontent of German citizens with current politics. But that was not all: what followed was the uncovering of a secret meeting including high-ranking AfD officials to discuss a “Remigration” plan for the country. The latter sparked huge outrage among the German public, which responded by organising large demonstrations against the right-wing party in many cities across the country. Under these circumstances, Germany enters a year with three important regional elections, whose outcomes might manifest the country's political shift to the right that so many are afraid of.

“Politics is like chess. The pawn is sacrificed first, and in the end, the king falls” – slogans like this fairly distorted metaphor could be found on tractors across Germany, whose owners had joined the protests against the decision of the government to cut agricultural subsidies that formed at the beginning of January 2024. The story of the protests had started earlier – with the budgetary crisis that shook the government at the end of 2023.

After the constitutional court had declared that the new climate fund of 60 billion euros that had been set up to finance Germany's green transition didn’t comply with the “Schuldenbremse” – the brake on any new government debt – the state found itself with exactly that amount of money short. Following the rising imperative to save money, it decided to implement various austerity measures, among them the termination of two subsidies granted to farmers: the tax reduction for diesel and the tax exemption for their vehicles. Those decisions were met with fierce resistance, as they meant that the financial burden for a group already facing difficulties during the past years was to increase even further.

However justified these demands might have been, what was not only surprising but rather worrying was the aggressive nature of their protests. Albeit the protesters did not attempt to block the capital – looking at France – the demonstrations definitely had it in them. Political figures like Chancellor Olaf Scholz or symbolic “traffic lights” (like the name of the incumbent government coalition) could be seen as figures depicted at the gallows; numerous important roads were temporarily blocked. Robert Habeck, Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, was also subject to direct harassment. When he returned from his Christmas holiday with his family on a ferry from a German island in the North Sea, more than 500 people gathered at the mainland port to “welcome” him. The ferry had to temporarily return to its starting point after the police were barely able to hold people back. Attempts by Habeck to talk to delegates of the protesters were declined by them.

For many, the aggressive nature of the protests symbolizes the general dissatisfaction of the German population with the incumbent government. The current “traffic light” coalition under Scholz, formed by the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and the Green party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), is highly unpopular in surveys – recently, 76 percent of respondents declared that they were unhappy with the work conducted in Berlin – and only 17 percent of respondents stated that they were satisfied.

A country of pessimists?

Traditionally, German people tend to be quite unhappy with their situation. Polls conducted among citizens of EU member states asking them about their general life satisfaction regularly rank Germany among the last places. In the 2023 survey, the country was only ahead of bottom-placed Bulgaria. When following public discourses in Germany, it often seems like a wave of pessimism accompanied by apathy regarding the future has swept the country. Today, 46 percent of people believe that they will be worse off in 10 years than they are now – and only 16 percent think that their situation will improve.

What seems to be an exemplification of this sentiment is the case of the German State Railway (DB). Notorious for its delays and cancellations of trains for years, the historically low number of punctual trains dropped even further in 2023 to only 64 percent, meaning that every third long-distance train was more than six minutes late. The reasons are well-known: many railway sections are chronically congested and in bad shape.

In early 2024, repeated strikes by train workers leading to temporary collapses of the Inner-German railway system further heightened chaos. Although the government continues to reiterate its pledge to invest more into a better railway system, a tangible improvement of the situation doesn’t seem to be within reach. In this regard, the budgetary crisis has certainly not helped. Complaining about the German railway is on the way to becoming a part of German culture – and this is certainly not something one should consider desirable.

Cui bono? The rise of the AfD and its haunting ideals

There seems to be a party that is effective in using all this dissatisfaction as a catalyst for its success. The same polls that predict low results for the parties of the incumbent government see people's approval of the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) soaring.

Polls conducted in December 2023 predicted up to 25 percent of votes in an upcoming federal election. The party has recently been rather successful at presenting itself as an – apparently for many – viable “alternative” to today's political leaders (and at twisting facts) and gained momentum. During the farmers´ protests, it unsurprisingly took the side of the protesters, whilst concealing that their very own party program is calling for an end of any farmers' subsidies altogether. 

In 2024, three regional elections are scheduled to be held in Germany ­– in the states of Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony. In all three states, the AfD has been leading in polls for months, with a predicted 30 to 35 percent of votes, and in two cases (Thuringia and Brandenburg) with a lead of more than ten percent. Consequently, the party is as of now more than likely to become the strongest opposition force, or even take on the respective regional governments after the elections.

The party's program proclaims anti-Islam, anti-immigration, nationalist and eurosceptic positions. Three branches of the party have been classified as “right-wing extremist groups” by the German domestic security agency – two of them are the ones in Thuringia and Saxony. Among other things, the AfD has repeatedly called for a “Dexit” – a German exit from the European Union.

The party's main objective is, however, ending what they consider to be “mass immigration” and a profound tightening of asylum policies. An alarming preview of how the country might look under an AfD government was given in a report by the investigative magazine Correctiv published in January. The journalists uncovered the content of a secret meeting that took place in Potsdam in November 2023, in which AfD politicians were brought together with well-known figures of far-right extremism by private party supporters.

During said meeting, a proposal described as “Remigration” was presented and “positively discussed”. The endeavor labeled as a “masterplan” by its authors aims at the deportation of individuals that they consider to be a ”burden for society”. This, unsurprisingly, would only apply to individuals with a foreign origin, or probably even to foreign-born citizens with a German passport. For a multicultural country like Germany - around 24 million people of its current inhabitants possess a migration background - it would mean that more than a quarter of its population would be subject to deportation.

The awakening of the “silent majority”

The uncovering of the meeting and the fact that AfD officials took part in it has led to a large backlash and harsh criticism (which seems like a moderate word to describe the consternation and anger that many reacted with) not only in German politics but also inside society, heavily contrasting the author's assumption made before that apathy was looming inside his own country.

For weeks, more than hundreds of thousands of people have been taking to the streets to show their staunch disagreement with the AfD's plans, protesting against the party and describing themselves as the human manifestation of a “firewall” against the far right. Countless demonstrations continue to take place in major German cities and small towns located all over the country every week. In Munich and Hamburg, the police had to stop two ongoing demonstrations because there were simply too many people attending.

In interviews, many of those protesters stated that they demonstrated for the first time, recognizing the need to engage actively in politics to prevent the rise of the AfD. Although the party tried to downplay its role in the meeting, newly published reports now claim that even an assistant with close ties to party leader Alice Weidel attended the gathering. While she seemed to distance herself from the meeting (e.g. by firing said assistant), other AfD members like René Springer, a member of the German Bundestag, openly embraced the possible deportation of millions of people, saying it was “not a secret plan, but a promise”.

So, what can the observer take from all of this? On the one hand, the chaos of the first weeks of 2024 seems to have calmed a bit. The government has successfully managed to set up a new state budget, and the farmers' protests have recently calmed down since a compromise was found that included the tax exemptions for agrarian vehicles staying in place. At the same time, a huge part of the German population has shown that it is certainly not ready to give up the political landscape to the right wing and is determined to stand up for its multicultural society. In the last weeks, the AfD's voting shares in nationwide polls have plummeted from around 24 to a bit over 19 percent.

On the other hand, it is unclear how long this tendency will last. The AfD continues to be stable in polls regarding the three regional elections, losing only one to two percent since the scandal was uncovered. With this, the stage is set and Germany awaits three elections that have the potential to break the “firewall” against the right and set a daunting precedent for domestic politics that has been almost unthinkable for decades – result unknown.



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