Far-Right Parties Make Gains in German, Italian Elections

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Erfurt, Germany, on Sunday. The words read: “Elections to the Thuringian Parliament.” (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

(CN) – Two elections in two distant, and very different, parts of Europe saw the emergence of two similar storylines: Far-right political forces remain strong and pose problems to the ruling coalitions in Germany and Italy.

On Sunday, Italy’s far-right League leader Matteo Salvini scored a big victory in Umbria, a small central Italian region long held by left-wing parties. A coalition of right-wing parties led by the League took in about 57% of the vote, ending 50 years of center-left rule in a region best known for St. Francis of Assisi and its regional cheeses and other delicacies.

The victory by the right-wing gubernatorial candidate spells trouble ahead for Italy’s coalition government led by the 5-Star Movement, an anti-establishment party formerly in an alliance with the League but now allied with the Democratic Party, a center-left establishment party.

This unusual coalition between an anti-establishment, direct-democracy party and the establishment Democrats used the Umbria election to see if they could campaign together for the first time, and the test came up spectacularly short. Their candidate gained only 37% of the vote.

In Germany, meanwhile, a far-right party known as the Alternative for Germany also made gains on Sunday in state elections in Thuringia, a small German state in central Germany that was formerly part of Communist East Germany. The result was noteworthy because its candidate in the race, Björn Höcke, is considered an extremist even within the party.

The AfD, as the party is commonly known, did not win the election, but it doubled its vote share by picking up about 23% of the vote. The party’s rise has been especially strong in formerly Communist parts of eastern Germany where discontent is high. The party’s flirtations with Nazi symbolism and rhetoric are of deep concern to many.

In the election, AfD surpassed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its success there may put more pressure on Merkel’s party to move more to the right. The CDU lost about 12% of its vote share compared to previous state elections in 2014.

“The CDU’s double-digit fall from pole position in Thuringia renders this another difficult evening for the party leadership in Berlin,” Carsten Nickel, an analyst with the political risk firm Teneo, said in a briefing note.

The Thuringia election was won by the Left, an offshoot of Germany’s former Communist party. It took in 31% of vote, largely due to the popularity of Bodo Ramelow, who has served as the minister-president of Thuringia.

Nickel said the AfD’s strong showing will force Merkel’s dominant conservative party to debate how to position itself at a time when Merkel is preparing to hand the reins of the party over to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her confidante and party leader.

Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer will struggle to find a balance between the party’s “rightist leanings and the aim to maintain the gains made at the political center during the Merkel years,” Nickel said.

The stability of the German government is also threatened by the dramatic collapse of Merkel’s coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats. The Social Democrats are in disarray and are choosing a new leader.

More than the outcome in Germany, the election results in Italy seem to herald serious problems ahead for the fragile national government in Rome. More regional elections are set to take place soon and if both parties continue to perform badly, analysts expect the coalition may collapse. A major test will come in January when voters in the left-leaning region of Emilia-Romagna go to the polls. The region is home to Bologna, the symbolic heart of Italy’s left.

Salvini savored his success on Monday and said the 5-Star Movement was thrashed by its supporters because it had aligned itself with the Democrats, a party that both the 5-Stars and the League had previously painted as a corrupt establishment party. The 5-Stars are facing backlash for choosing to bring the Democrats into government after it split from Salvini.

“The 5-Star voters punished their betrayal,” Salvini said at a news conference in Perugia, the region’s capital.

Since 2018 national elections, the League has been gaining strength across Italy and Sunday’s results reinforced this reality. The League’s strong showing in a left-wing stronghold such as Umbria is more proof that Salvini has become the de facto leader of the right in Italy and remains a dominant force in Italy even though the League is now in the opposition.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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