How Come Germany is the Most Left-Leaning Country in Europe?

Casual observers might surmise that Scandinavian countries have the most left-leaning publics in Europe. Not so. Drawing on data from the most recent wave of the European Social Survey (ESS), we find that, maybe surprisingly, Germany is the country where respondents, on average, self-identify the strongest as “left”.

The ESS contains a question that tries to gauge ideological self-placement of respondents. To this end, the questionnaire contains an item where respondents are asked for their placement on a left right scale. Specifically, the question asked is: “In politics people sometimes talk of left and right. Where would you place yourself on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?” For the 16 countries considered here (see map and list below), the mean value for 2016 is 5.14. This is almost exactly in the middle of where you would expect the average citizen to fall if political preferences were normally or uniformly distributed.  

The 16 countries are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Out of these, Germany has the most left-leaning average value (4.44), while Poland is the most right-leaning country with an average left-right self-placement value of 5.86.

Average values can tell us only so much. How about the distribution? The standard deviation between left-right self-placement in the 16 countries varies between 1.96 in Estonia and 3.68 in the Czech Republic. Political polarization in Germany, Poland and the Nordic countries is much lower, while France, Ireland and the UK are somewhere in the middle.

We can also look at attitudes towards redistribution. The ESS contains an item that  states “The government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels.” Respondents are asked whether they strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree. This yields a 1 to 5 scale with lower values indicating more support for redistribution. It turns out that the Sweden and Norway are less in favor of redistribution than, for example, Germany, Poland or France. Slovenia is the most pro-redistribution country in the sample with the Czech Republic coming out as the least redistribution-friendly country. It should be noted, however, that even there, the average value is 2.85 which means that, on average, even in the country that is most skeptical about redistribution, a majority supports the statement that the government should reduce income differences. Note that on the map below darker colors stand for less support for redistribution.

How does this compare to actual inequality? We can look at the Gini coefficient as a measure for income inequality. The Gini has a theoretical range from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (perfect inequality). Data for this variable comes from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database  (SWIID). We use income inequality post transfers and taxes, i.e. after the government has taken measures to change market outcomes. According to this measure, Norway is the most equitable country in the sample with a Gini of 22.92 , while the country with the most unequal income distribution is Estonia (Gini = 34.28).

Interestingly, none of these values are highly correlated. Leftist self-identification does not significantly translate into more support for redistribution. Higher support for redistribution is not strongly correlated with income inequality, neither positively or negatively. This means that respondents figure in more than just economic issues when answering the question of left-right self placement. It also means that actual levels of (post tax, post transfer) inequality do not reflect average preferences over redistribution.

On the map, you can visualize the data. Click on the countries or on the circles that show inequality for each country to see more information.

Oh, and as for the question in the title? Barring further analysis, our best guess is that the result for Germany is driven by social desirability bias that is particularly strong in Germany.

Where Did the German AfD Benefit the Most From Increased Turnout? Surprise: It’s Not the East

We took another look at the results from Germany’s federal parliamentary elections that took place on September 24th. The right-wing authoritarian party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) massively increased their electoral support and became the third largest group in the Bundestag.

While it was apparent immediately after the elections that the AfD’s largest voting block was former non-voters (see e.g. https://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2017-09-24-BT-DE/analyse-wanderung.shtml), the variation in this relation is less clear.

We were interested in where the AdF benefited the most from increased turnout and created the map below. The shading shows the ratio of turnout change to AfD vote share. In other words, it shows the degree to which the AfD was able to turn an increase in turnout into votes. Click on the map to see details about the districts.

Click on the shaded areas to see district detail.

It turns out that the districts where the AfD benefitted the most from increased turnout are almost exclusively located in Bavaria. By contrast, in the Eastern states, where the AfD generally won much higher vote shares than in Bavaria, the ratio of turnout change to AfD vote is much lower.

In our view, political parties would be well advised to take a close look at these results. The districts in Bavaria where the turnout-to-AfD ratio was highest are certainly not economically distressed. Unemployment is low and household incomes tend to be above average. It is here that the AfD was able to mobilize with their message of national identity and xenophobia. The party was able to speak to voters who had been alienated from the party system and chose to abstain in previous elections. Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the conservatives in Bavaria, chancellor Merkel’s sister party CSU, will handle the state elections that are scheduled to take place in Fall 2018.

Turnout and Electoral Success in the 2017 German Parliamentary Elections, Reloaded

The parliamentary elections in Germany took place more than a month ago. Yesterday, the new Bundestag met for the first time, with the far-right AfD as its third strongest group. Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel is trying to assemble a new governing coalition.

The above interactive plot lets you visualize some of the data on the German election. The data is assembled at the level of the 299 electoral districts (source: Federal Returning Office). Try selecting the change in voter turnout as the X variable and the change in support for different parties as the Y variable. Notice how increased turnout benefited the AfD, hurt the CDU/CSU and did not affect support for the SPD. Another interesting visual is produced by selecting different parties and compare how the success of one party hurt (or did not hurt) the other party.

On the map: Turnout and party support in the 2017 German federal elections

Following up from yesterday’s post, we can also look at a map of Germany to see where the electoral losses for the  center-right CDU/CSU were most severe. The party incurred their most severe losses in parts of Saxony and Bavaria, former party strongholds, but also in the Southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Change in electoral support (party vote) for the CDU/CSU in the 2017 German federal elections

By contrast, the far-right party AfD increased their vote share most markedly in East Germany and parts of Bavaria.

Change in electoral support (party vote) for the AfD in the 2017 German federal elections

Finally, we can look at the change in turnout. Turnout increases were largest in Bavaria and parts of East Germany. As we have seen,  increased mobilization benefited the AfD and hurt the CDU/CSU.

Change in voter turnout in the 2017 German federal elections

Interpretation:  The AfD was able to asymmetrically mobilize voters that supported their anti-immigrant and anti-establishment positions. In September 2017, less than two weeks before the election, more than 80 percent of AfD supporters said that the “AfD is the only party through which I can express my protest against current policies”. The same share of AfD supporters agreed that the “AfD does not solve any problems, but at least they tell it like it is.” (Source: ARD-DeutschlandTREND). This, together with the turnout analysis, suggests that the AfD mobilized previously alienated voters by taking positions that were not represented by other parties in the political arena.

How voter mobilization benefited the far-right German AfD

The September 24, 2017 German federal elections saw the far right, anti-immigrant and euro-skeptical party “Alternative for Germany” (“Alternative für Deutschland” – AfD) surging to third place behind chancellor Merkel’s center-left CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats. With the AfD’s success the focus of most observers, an interesting phenomenon has been largely overlooked, namely the fact that the AfD disproportionately benefited from increased turnout. We analyzed some of the available data at the level of electoral districts and found that the AfD was particularly strong in those districts that saw the largest increase in voter turnout.

The following table shows results from a regression analysis that models vote share as a function of a number of covariates, including the change in electoral participation (the turnout variable). Focussing on model 3 where the AfD’s vote share is the dependent variable, we find that the AfD massively benefitted from an increase in turnout. Increasing the change in turnout (i.e. mobilization) from its mean by one standard deviation leads to a one percentage point increase in AfD votes.

Determinants of Electoral Success, German Federal Elections 2017
CDU/CSU SPD AfD
(1) (2) (3)
Change in Turnout from 2013 0.214* -0.872*** 0.510***
(0.116) (0.119) (0.103)
Population Density -0.000*** -0.000*** -0.000***
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Disposable income per capita 0.000* -0.000*** 0.000
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Higher Education (percentage Abitur) -0.002*** 0.001*** -0.002***
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
Unemployment -0.006*** 0.011*** 0.003**
(0.001) (0.001) (0.001)
Percentage migration background -0.002*** -0.001*** 0.001***
(0.000) (0.000) (0.000)
East -0.073*** -0.134*** 0.112***
(0.008) (0.008) (0.007)
Constant 0.427*** 0.286*** 0.107***
(0.032) (0.033) (0.028)
Observations 299 299 299
R2 0.718 0.724 0.729
Adjusted R2 0.711 0.717 0.723
Residual Std. Error (df = 291) 0.032 0.033 0.028
F Statistic (df = 7; 291) 105.830*** 108.835*** 111.919***
Notes: ***Significant at the 1 percent level.
**Significant at the 5 percent level.
*Significant at the 10 percent level.

This is substantively important, given that the AfD fell short of clearing the threshold for parliamentary representation by just 0.3 percent in the 2013 federal elections. On the other hand, the SPD massively lost from an increase in turnout, showing that the party was not able to speak to its voters.

Of the other variables, we observe a number of significant effects. Most importantly the AfD is stronger in the east. On average, going from a Western district to one in the East increases AfD vote share by more than 11 percent.

Secondly, the AfD is stronger in less populated areas, i.e. outside the big cities. The AfD is also stronger where voters are less educated and where unemployment is higher.

Finally, the AfD is stronger in districts where the share of the population with a “migration background” is higher. It is important to note that the Federal Returning Office defines “migration background” as follows: “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). Immigrants from Russia who came to Germany in the early 1990s and who disproportionately support the AfD could explain this effect. (see, for example, here.)

How important was each of these variables in relation to each other? To see this, we can turn to z-score standardized coefficients (beta coefficients) and their graphic representation on the following figure:

The strongest predictor in relative terms is the East dummy, then the education variable, followed by population density, the change in turnout from 2013, the percentage of people with migration background, and finally the unemployment variable. Note that the variable that captures disposable income is not significant.

We can conclude by pointing out that the AfD success cannot be explained by economic grievances. The variable that captures income is not significant and the unemployment variable is a poor predictor once other factors have been taken into account. What matters most is the division between Eastern und Western districts. In the East, many voters seem to be alienated from established parties and possibly from the system as a whole. The AfD with their anti-system rhetoric was able to mobilize these voters. The geographic and educational divide of the electorate is reminiscent of the situation in other countries, for example in the US.