Germany’s 2024 EU Parliamentary Election: Populist Surge, But the Center Holds (at Least in the West)

The 2024 EU parliamentary election in Germany has been generally interpreted as a major victory for the political right and a defeat for the left – and for good reasons. To illustrate the electoral shift from 2019 EU election, I have modified a German graphic and translated it into English (see the figure posted below). As can be seen, the center-right “Union Party” (Christian Democratic Union combined with the Christian Social Union of Bavaria) made modest gains while the rightwing (or far-right), Alternative for Germany (AfD) made major gains. In contrast, the center-left Social Democratic Party suffered modest losses while the environmental-left Greens suffered major losses. The leftwing (or far-left) Left Party suffered an even larger proportional loss, with many of its voters shifting to the new Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW). Although BSW takes mostly leftwing positions, it has veered in a decidedly populist-nationalist direction that is usually associated with the far-right. BSW is especially critical of the Green Party, which it blames for the recent decline in living standards of the German working class. The only party on the broadly defined left to see major gains was Volt Germany, a pro-EU, socially liberal, pragmatic party that “claims to have an evidence-based, scientific approach.”

Graph of the 2024 German EU Election by Parties Vote
2024 German EU Election Parties Vote Graph

The most striking geographical feature of this election is the stark differentiation of former West Germany from former East Germany. This distinction appears on every German electoral map, but in this election it was particularly pronounced. As the first map posted below shows, the right-populist Alternative for Germany won a plurality of votes in almost every electoral district in the former East whereas the center-leaning, moderately conservative (combined) Christian Union Party won a plurality of votes in a sizable majority of districts in the former West. I have indicated the exceptions on the map, which in all cases voted further to the left than did surrounding districts. Other than Postdam-Mittelmark southwest of Berlin, all these exceptional areas are urban based, being either “city-states” (state-level cities: Berlin, Hamburg, and two-part Bremen) or “district-free cities” (Kreisfreie Städte) that sit outside the regular districts (Kreise) into which German states are divided. This leftward shift in urban areas is to be expected, but in this election it was particularly pronounced. Intriguingly, in the former East German state of Saxony, both Dresden and Leipzig – historically highly cultured major cities – gave plurality support to the rightwing AfD, although not to the same extent as nearby rural districts. In the neighboring former East German state of Thuringia, in contrast, Jena, Weimar, and Erfurt all gave plurality support to the more centrist (combined) Christian Union Party.

Map of the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election Vote in Germany Showing Exceptional Districts
2024 EU Election Vote Germany Exceptional Districts Map

Map of Saxony and Thuringia in the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election
Saxony and Thuringia 2024 EU Election Map

But it is essential not to exaggerate the victory of the right. Although the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, are almost always described “center-right,” such a designation is fitting only in the European context. From the perspective of the United States, the Christian Democratic Union is more centrist than center-right and could be construed as slightly left-of-center. If one looks at this election not in “left/right” terms, but rather in regard to the distinction between establishment-oriented centrist parties and parties with a more radical inclination – whether rightist or leftist – a different picture emerges. In the map below, I have combined the vote percentages of all parties that Wikipedia defines as oriented toward the center. As can be seen, center-oriented parties enjoyed overwhelming support in the West, taking more than 70 percent of the vote in all of its states but Saarland.

Map of the Combined Vote of Center Parties in the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election in Germany
Combined Center Party Vote 2024 EU Election Germany map

The situation in former East Germany is quite different, but even there the election results were mixed. Centrist parties received between 42 and 46 percent of the vote in the former East German states, which was roughly the same vote-share taken by populist-nationalist parties. This can be seen in the map posted below, which combines the vote shares of the right-populist-nationalist AfD and the left-populist-nationalist BSW. Intriguingly, in both the West and East there is relatively little difference from state to state in their support for these two opposed political tendencies.

Map of the 2024 EU Parliamentary Election in Germany Showing the Combined Populist Nationalist Vote
2024 EU Election Germany Populist Nationalist Vote Map

The current electoral situation in the United States as a whole is more similar to that of former East Germany than that of former West Germany. In the U.S., the electorate is relatively evenly split between the establishment-oriented Democratic Party and the Republican Party, which has veered in a populist-nationalist direction under the influence of Donald Trump. But in the U.S., unlike former East Germany, support for these two broad camps varies greatly from state to state.