Voters in two east German regions went to the polls on Sunday in elections that are expected to see big gains for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party and bolster the standing of its radical wing.
The elections in Brandenburg and Saxony are set to underscore the waning strength of Germany’s mainstream parties — Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the left-of-centre Social Democratic party — both of which are expected to see sharp declines in their share of the vote.
Polls suggest that both the CDU and the SPD will manage to cling on to power in the two states, but it will become much harder to them to form stable coalition governments — especially as they have both ruled out alliances with AfD. Both may need to be propped up by the Greens, who have emerged in recent months as the rising force in German politics.
Saxony is at present governed by the CDU in coalition with the SPD. Brandenburg, meanwhile, is run by the SPD in coalition with Die Linke, a hard-left grouping with its roots in East Germany’s former ruling Communist party, the SED.
The elections come at a sensitive time for both the CDU and SPD, who govern Germany together in a “grand coalition” in Berlin. The CDU’s leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Ms Merkel last December, has struggled to impose her authority on the party and was blamed for its dismal performance in the European elections in May. The pressure on her will increase if the party does badly in Saxony, which it has ruled since German reunification.
The SPD, meanwhile, is in the process of choosing a new leader to replace Andrea Nahles, who resigned after the European elections, and is still agonising over whether to remain in the grand coalition with the CDU, an arrangement many in the party say is to blame for the collapse in its standing with voters.
AfD has seized on frustration among voters who are angry about lingering inequalities between east and west, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The east German economy is thriving with low unemployment and stable growth, but wages and pensions remain lower than in the west, and easterners routinely complain of being treated like second-class citizens.
The Saxon town of Görlitz, for example, has the lowest salaries in the whole of Germany, according to a recent study.
Many “Ossis” are still traumatised by the economic upheaval that took place after reunification, when hundreds of communist-era factories were shuttered and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Some rural areas went into terminal decline as young people moved away to find jobs in the west, and a gradual shrinkage of transport connections and public services left the remaining population feeling cut off and abandoned.
Many in the east now fear a new wave of economic turmoil following a decision by the government in Berlin to phase out the mining and burning of lignite, a particularly polluting form of coal, by 2038. The Lausitz, a large coal-producing area that straddles Brandenburg and Saxony, will be one of the wort affected places.
The grand coalition says it will cushion the effect with €40bn of structural aid, but many in the region feel it will not be enough.
AfD is the only party that is opposed to the shutdown.
“Some 18,000 jobs depend on coal in the Lausitz,” said Tino Chrupalla, an AfD MP from Görlitz. “They should create new jobs before they close a single coal power station.”
Sunday’s elections will also have a direct bearing on the future direction of AfD, which has recently been roiled by a power struggle between moderate conservatives and hardline nationalists grouped into a movement called the Wing.
A strong performance in Brandenburg could give a huge boost to the Wing; the party’s leader in the state is Andreas Kalbitz, a hardliner who is one of the Wing’s most prominent politicians.