Ask the average German, and they will probably know two things about Bautzen, the small town close to Saxony’s Czech border. It’s the home of perhaps East Germany’s most famous food product: a spicy mustard that has become a popular garnish for sausages across the country, and it was the scene of a series of ugly incidents three years ago during the height of the “refugee crisis.”
In February 2016, an empty hotel that was about to be repurposed into a refugee home was set on fire. A few months later, dozens of police officers broke up a street fight between around 20 migrants and 80 right-wing extremists. But that trouble, which drew noisy media attention at the time, feels a long time ago and a long way away on Monday at Bautzen’s Kornmarkt square, where around 300 conspicuously peaceful Bautzeners came to eat ice cream and watch Green party co-leader Robert Habeck make his pitch two weeks ahead of the state election.
Green leader attacked by far-right thugs
Safety concerns, however, were not absent. Two police vans took up positions at a discreet distance, and the moderator began proceedings by telling those present that glass bottles and alcoholic drinks were banned for the duration of the open-air, 90-minute Q+A session.
There was good reason for this precaution. Habeck’s three-week multi-stop tour of Saxony and Brandenburg has not been entirely friction-free. Last Thursday in Chemnitz, a city that was the scene of major far-right violence and marches last summer, the Green leader was aggressively heckled by an organized contingent from the far-right group Pro Chemnitz. According a report in the taz newspaper, “muscular men with shaved heads and dark glasses” screamed “get out” at him a few yards from the stage.
Biggest question: Almost anything but refugees
The former East Germany is not a comfort zone for the Greens — a resurgent party who came a close second to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in May’s European elections. The current polls in Saxony, however, have them in fourth place, trailing the CDU, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the socialist Left party.
But this pleasantly warm August evening in Bautzen couldn’t have done more to refute prejudices about eastern Germany in general, and Saxony in particular. Habeck, looking relaxed in rolled-up shirt sleeves and his top button undone, appeared conscious of stereotypes before the event.
“This election campaign is about bringing normality into this political debate, and not to keep walking around with this division in your head: ‘Oh, the East is so difficult and so different’,” he told DW. “And that’s how we try to deal with it. Not to be walking around with preconceived opinions. It’s about removing the cliche of the East.”
Energy, energy, and pragmatism
The recent event in Chemnitz notwithstanding, recent flashpoints in German politics such as immigration and Islam did not come up. Instead, with citizens given the opportunity to ask anything of Habeck and state Greens leader Wolfram Günther, questions about energy, environment, and economics dominated the forum.
Bautzeners repeatedly inquired about how Germany will stay powered if it switches off both its nuclear power stations and its coal power stations. Saxony, after all, is home to some of Germany’s biggest brown coal mines, traditionally a vital part of the economy.
That was the thrust of the very first question, asked by a young and skeptical man at the back named Paul Reiter. Habeck’s answer was guarded, quick to reassure the spectators that the last thing the Greens were about to do was destabilize Germany’s power supply.
But Habeck’s investment in renewable energy sources did not convince Reiter. “How can an industrial nation like Germany make itself dependent on wind?” he told DW. “What happens when the wind isn’t there for a longer time?”
In response, Habeck and Günther displayed their environmentalist credentials, launching into detail about new technologies like smart meters and appliances that switch on when the wind energy is plentiful and cheap. “For this form of energy we need new infrastructure,” Habeck said. “At the moment, what is not happening is that the cheaper prices are being passed on to consumers.”
Habeck’s affable persona is clearly not lost on Green party strategists, and the audience’s response was largely positive. But in this forum he was often at pains to portray the Greens not just as environmental defenders, but as protectors of the average citizens’ bank balance. And in the former East, where the economy continues to lag significantly decades after German reunification, economics and pragmatism are key voter concerns. Whether the Greens can address those and pull voters away from the populist appeal of the far-right AfD that has channeled many Easterners’ frustrations, remains to be seen.