Long-term loss of significance causes voter frustration

Neue Studie zeigt auf: AfD & Co. werden dort gewählt, wo der Wohlstand langfristNeue Studie zeigt auf: AfD & Co. werden dort gewählt, wo der Wohlstand langfristig sinkt. Foto: Anne Günther (Universität Jena)

It is primarily the inhabitants of economically isolated places and regions who vote for right-wing populist parties - this is a common thesis explaining the electoral successes of AfD & Co. in Europe. A research team at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena has now found that high AfD vote shares in the last two federal elections can apparently be explained by a long-term decline in a region’s relative prosperity. Since this loss of significance extends beyond the lifespan of the inhabitants of such seemingly disconnected places, a kind of collective memory apparently plays a role here. The Jena economists present the results of their work, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, in the journal ,,Journal of Regional Science".

Descent in the Ranking

For their work, the Jena researchers looked at a time span of almost one hundred years. Using data on regional per capita income in 1925 and the two federal election years 2017 and 2021, they compared the income position of a region in the national economic ranking and contrasted it with the respective voting results for the AfD. "This revealed that the vote shares for the AfD were relatively high in areas that had fallen particularly sharply in the rankings," explains Michael Fritsch from the University of Jena.Areas such as southern Saxony and cities such as Bautzen and Dresden were among the economic leaders in Germany, if not Europe, in the 1920s, but have lost a great deal of their economic importance over time. It is in these areas that support for the AfD is particularly high, even when other possible determinants of voter behavior are taken into account." The same applies, for example, to the Ruhr region or the city of Duisburg, which shows that such phenomena are not limited to eastern Germany.

The Jena team particularly emphasizes that apparently the comparison of one’s own status with other regions plays a decisive role, because in principle prosperity has increased in all regions."Income in southern Saxony has risen since reunification, and the region leads the East in innovation, income growth and business start-ups," says Fritsch.But the decline of the business location from a leading position to what is currently the bottom quarter is leaving its mark on self-image and making people feel more disconnected than they actually are. " The resentment is obviously particularly great when people know that there have been much better times. The decision to vote for a right-wing populist party at the ballot box is also an expression of this frustration.

Industrial monuments as a reflection of a rich past

The perception of one’s own decline is apparently anchored in a kind of collective memory. To map how strong and vivid the memory of earlier times is in a region, the Jena experts chose an unusual method:"We related the presence of industrial monuments to variables indicating economic decline over the past 90 years. Itturned out that the decline effect we observed is stronger in regions where there are particularly many such memorials," says Maria Greve, who worked on the project."Where awareness of a rich past is particularly strong and has a particular influence on regional identity, the correlation between perceived relegation and the electoral success of right-wing populists is also particularly clear."

By looking to the past, the researchers want to show how important it is to broaden the temporal horizon if one wants to get to the bottom of the causes of such phenomena as the rise of right-wing populist parties in Germany and Europe. "We emphasize that for analyses of current situations and developments, we not only look at the period since the end of World War II or from the upheaval surrounding reunification, but look further back in history," says Michael Wyrwich of the University of Jena.This could possibly open up the imprints that explain phenomena and make role models visible that can be used politically to create a new self-confidence. "