The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won a position of executive power for the first time. Its candidate, Robert Sesselmann, became district administrator, or head of a county, in local elections on Sunday.
Sesselmann, a lawyer and regional lawmaker, beat incumbent Jürgen Köpper of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a second-round runoff election in Sonneberg county in the eastern state of Thuringia.
Official results showed Sesselmann winning 52.8% to 47.2%.
AfD’s win comes as its support surges in national polls, from 10% last June to 18% today. At the same time, support has plummeted for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition, composed of his center-left Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party.
Two polls last week show AfD equal or ahead of the Social Democrats nationwide, with Insa reporting them neck-and-neck at 20% and Infratest dimap putting AfD ahead by two points, 19% to 17%.
According to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, when asked what issues led voters to support AfD, “an overwhelming majority of respondents named the far-right’s critical stance on immigration.” This despite Scholtz’s announcement in May that he will introduce tighter border controls.
The rise of the AfD has raised concerns among Germany’s political echelon and Jewish groups. Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said of Sesselmann’s win, “This is a watershed that this country’s democratic political forces cannot simply accept.”
In 2020, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency put AfD’s most nationalistic faction, Der Flügel (“The Wing”), under formal surveillance. Der Flügel was founded by Björn Höcke, an AfD politician in Thuringia. Höcke can be seen celebrating next to Sesselmann in video from an election party on Sunday.
Höcke provoked outrage in 2017 when he referred to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital.” He said the country needed to make a “180-degree turnaround” and stop atoning for Nazi crimes.
When the party scored high in Germany’s 2017 elections, becoming the third-largest party in the country, Charlotte Knobloch, chairwoman of Munich’s Jewish community and former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said it was “a nightmare come true.” World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder called AfD “a disgrace for Germany.”
AfD has been boycotted by successive Israeli governments. For that reason, when three AfD leaders from the Bundestag visited Yad Vashem in early May, Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan chose not to meet with them.
AfD fends off charges of antisemitism by pointing to its strong support for Israel. A 2017 poll of AfD politicians found that most opposed unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state, called for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and identified the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement as antisemitic.
Nearly 90% of AfD members polled either totally or somewhat supported then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pronouncement that “Israel’s security is Germany’s raison d’être.”