The Persistent Relevance of Immigration for German Voters

Hannah Alarian

University of Florida

Hannah Alarian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on the comparative politics of belonging, examining topics of immigration, political identity, and public policy across West Europe. In Cause or Consequence? The AfD and Attitudes toward Migration Policy (2020), she investigates how the far-right alters support for immigration and asylum-hosting policies in Germany. In Values or origin? Mandatory immigrant integration and immigration attitudes in Europe (2021), she along with Michael Neuretier considers whether immigrant integration policies themselves affect public support for immigration in the UK. In National Belonging and Public Support for Multiculturalism (2019), Alarian and Sara Wallace Goodman reveal how conceptions of national identity can shape attitudes toward such policies of inclusion globally.

In Germany’s 2017 election, immigration played a decisive role as a clear wedge issue, splitting political parties and providing the necessary conditions for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to enter the Bundestag. Although election observers and scholars frequently invoke the Syrian refugee flow as justification for immigration’s importance in 2017, the German electorate has long held strong—and often hostile—political attitudes toward immigrants and immigration across the party space.

The 2021 Bundestag election, however, may represent a shift in the relevance of immigration for German voters. The election occurred in the midst of a deadly global pandemic which not only dominated German political discourse but also effectively halted immigration into the country. New border closures and immigration restrictions designed to halt the spread of the coronavirus may have appeased voters concerned with immigration, reducing the relevance of far-right parties who have made reducing immigration their raison d’être. Further, in contrast to 2017, where protest movements were centered on questions of immigration and refugee politics, major protest movements in 2021 addressed issues related to the pandemic (e.g., Querdenken) and climate change (e.g., Fridays for Future). The reduced salience of immigration may further destabilize the link between immigration attitudes and voting behavior, as German voters are more likely to vote on their immigration preferences in conditions where its salience is high.

This begs the question: is immigration still relevant for German voting behavior in 2021? Previously, voters with strong immigration attitudes—be they positive or negative—were more likely to support parties on the right and far less likely those on the left. Do these patterns persist when immigration is no longer salient? Or has a new relationship emerged between immigration attitudes and voting behavior?

To answer these questions, I compare average immigration attitudes by federal state in the month proceeding the 2021 election. I find that despite reductions in immigration between 2017 and 2021, German voters across the country still believed it to be an important topic. Moreover, there are no statistically significant differences by state: immigration is perceived to be just as important in Saxony as it is in North Rhine-Westphalia. Still, contrary to issue importance, average preferences for immigration restrictions vary significantly across the country. The German electorate on average leaned slightly toward restricting immigration, with clear regional variation between former East and West Germany. These simple aggregate patterns suggest immigration remained important in the 2021 Bundestag election beyond mere issue salience.

Further, while immigration’s salience in the media decreased, the share of the German electorate who reported immigration as one of the two most important problems facing Germany remained high. In total, approximately one in every six (i.e., 16.51 percent) survey respondents mentioned migration as one of the key political problems facing Germany in the two months preceding the 2021 election. The persistent importance placed on immigration is in itself remarkable, given the host of other political issues which reasonably could have been more salient to the German electorate: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, catastrophic flooding in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, increasingly dire climate change concerns, and rising right-wing extremism and violence. Nevertheless, it appears that a stable contingency of the electorate throughout the country perceives immigration as one of the most important political problems in Germany.

Although these findings support the theory of immigration’s continued importance in German politics, they cannot speak to how these immigration attitudes in turn affect actual voting behavior in the 2021 election. Modeling vote choice in 2017, I find these voters who perceived immigration to be an important topic were significantly more likely to vote for the AfD. A nearly identical pattern occurred in 2021, whereby immigration-salient voters were more likely to vote for the AfD. Additionally, this immigration-minded electorate was significantly less likely to vote for the Green party. These results suggest that immigration importance, regardless of its salience on the national stage, is a consistent and reliable predictor of AfD support.

Exiting the political discourse on immigration will not erase immigration from voters’ minds. It will, however, provide the far-right the opportunity to spread their xenophobic message without constraint or counternarratives.

Moving forward, what do these findings mean for German electoral politics? Since 2017, the world has changed dramatically. A global pandemic, multiple climate crises, and new forced migration flows within Europe all have reshaped the future of German political environments. Yet the relationship between immigration attitudes and voter behavior has persisted across elections—signaling greater support for the far-right and less for the Greens in Germany. In sum, even when less attention is paid to immigration preferences, they nonetheless have significant effects on behavior at the ballot box.

At first brush, this conclusion seemingly runs counter to the dominant narrative of the 2021 election as one with many winners and one loser: the AfD. Yet while the party experienced a reduction in its absolute seat total in the Bundestag, its growing success in the first vote suggests a party capable of regional and national growth among immigration voters. Of the twenty narrow first vote losses in 2017—defined as losses where the party came in second with less than a 10 percent gap between them and the winning party—eleven transitioned into AfD wins in 2021. In the remaining nine vulnerable constituencies, AfD candidates improved their vote share in seven. If this pattern continues­­—whereby narrow first losses convert into a win in the next electoral cycle—AfD candidates may soon represent new constituencies in Bavaria, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Saxony.

In the midst of a global pandemic, mainstream parties increasingly appear to regard the far-right’s core issue of immigration as largely irrelevant. Yet immigration has not become electorally irrelevant. Thus, the primary strategy of mainstream German parties—ignoring immigration for fear of raising its salience—is unlikely to be successful. Exiting the political discourse on immigration will not erase immigration from voters’ minds. It will, however, provide the far-right the opportunity to spread their xenophobic message without constraint or counternarratives. When immigration becomes salient again, perhaps as a result of new refugee flows from Ukraine, mainstream parties may find it increasingly difficult to re-enter and frame the conversation.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.