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Electoral Participation and Right Wing Authoritarian Success – Evidence from the 2017 Federal Elections in Germany

Wahlbeteiligung und rechtsautoritärer Erfolg – Erkenntnisse aus der Bundestagswahl 2017 in Deutschland

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The 2017 federal elections in Germany propelled the far-right party “Alternative für Deutschland” (“Alternative for Germany” – AfD) to become the third largest party in the federal parliament. I argue that this electoral success can be explained by the party’s ability to mobilize a large part of the electorate that had abstained in previous elections. Theoretically, I argue that the AfD was able to asymmetrically mobilize voters because of its unique position in the German party system and because of a perceived centrist move of the CDU/CSU. Drawing on data from the Federal Returning Office, I show that the AfD was able to mobilize the electorate more successfully than other parties and that the party’s electoral success was in large part due to this mobilization success with the change in turnout the second strongest predictor of AfD vote shares. Furthermore, employing individual level data, I show that (a) a plurality of those voters who did not participate in the 2013 elections but participated in the 2017 elections voted for the AfD; and (b) that the centrist move of the CDU is perceived much more pronouncedly among AfD voters than among non-AfD voters.


Die AfD („Alternative für Deutschland“) ging aus den Bundestagswahlen 2017 als die drittstärkste Partei hervor. Ich argumentiere, dass sich dieser Wahlerfolg als erfolgreiche Mobilisierung von Wählern erklären lässt, die früheren Wahlen ferngeblieben waren. Theoretisch argumentiere ich, dass die AfD zu einer asymmetrischen Wählermobilisierung aufgrund ihrer einzigartigen Position im deutschen Parteiensystem sowie einer wahrgenommenen Positionsveränderung hin zu Mitte auf Seiten der CDU in der Lage war. Empirisch zeige ich auf der Grundlage von Daten des Bundeswahlleiters, dass die AfD besser als andere Parteien in der Lage war, ihre Wähler zu mobilisieren. Die Zunahme der Wahlbeteiligung war der zweitstärkste Prädiktor für den Stimmenanteil der AfD; ihr Wahlerfolg demnach in großem Umfang ein Mobilisierungserfolg. Darüber hinaus zeige ich mit Hilfe von Individualdaten, dass a) die meisten Wähler, die 2013 sich der Stimme enthalten haben, aber an den Wahlen 2017 teilgenommen haben, die AfD gewählt haben und b) dass eine Positionsveränderung der CDU hin zur Mitte wesentlich stärker unter AfD-Wählern wahrgenommen wurde als unter Wählern, die nicht die AfD gewählt haben.

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  2. The FDP is not visible in this picture because its position is practically identical with the CSU’s.

  3. It is worth pointing out that these results in some respects differ markedly from the results of the election research firm Infratest Dimap that have been widely circulated, for example here: In the Infratest data, previous non-voters were the strongest source of support for the AfD. Former voters of the CDU/CSU accounted for just over 1 million AfD votes. I checked my results by analyzing vote shifts towards the Green party and found much more consistency with the Infratest data there. The discrepancy is probably introduced through the social desirability bias that is stronger in the GLES data. Likewise, the GLES data are collected after election results are known. Respondents may thus have an incentive to conform to a narrative that is already established at the time of the interview. On the other hand, the GLES data are overall of much higher quality and – unlike the Infratest vote shift data – come from a single source, namely the responses of the persons interviewed for the survey. It is obvious, though, that electoral participation if massively over-reported in the GLES data. If all respondents told the truth, we’d be looking at a turnout rate of almost 94 percent.

  4. Own calculation with data from Infratest Dimap and the Hesse State Returning Office.

  5. “Migration background means foreign nationals plus all those Germans who came to Germany after 1955 plus all those Germans with at least one parent who came to Germany after 1955” – “Als Personen mit Migrationshintergrund werden alle zugewanderten und nicht zugewanderten Ausländer sowie alle nach 1955 auf das heutige Gebiet der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zugewanderten Deutschen und alle Deutschen mit zumindest einem nach 1955 auf das heutige Gebiet der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zugewanderten Elternteil definiert.” (Federal Returning Office:

  6. As a check of robustness, I also ran OLS regressions with the absolute number of votes instead of vote shares. The results are largely unchanged.

  7. As a robustness check, I also calculated the influence of CDU/CSU and SPD vote shares in 2013 on 2017 AfD vote shares (see Table 8 in the Appendix (available online). The results are virtually unchanged.).

  8. Unfortunately, the GLES long-term panel that includes the 2017 elections has not been published yet. Therefore, the empirical exercise here has to rely on self-reported retrospective claims.

  9. These results are confirmed by multi-variate logit regressions where individual electoral participation is the dependent variable and perceived difference voting makes as the core independent variable. The regressions control for income and education. Results are available on request.

  10. Interestingly, of the 115 respondents who said that they abstained in 2013, only 43 said that they abstained in 2017 as well. In other words, more non-voters became voters than non-voters remained non-voters.


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For helpful comments, I would like to thank participants of the PSAC seminar at Cornell University as well as participants of the ‘European Elections in Times of Crisis’ workshop, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, 17-18 May 2018. For their numerous thoughtful suggestions, I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Christian W. Martin.

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Martin, C.W. Electoral Participation and Right Wing Authoritarian Success – Evidence from the 2017 Federal Elections in Germany. Polit Vierteljahresschr 60, 245–271 (2019).

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