Germany’s anti-migrants eye gains in Merkel state

Germany's anti-migrant populists are eyeing major gains at Sunday's state polls, at the expense of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, which faces a backlash over her decision to open the borders to refugees a year ago.

Germany's anti-migrants eye gains in Merkel state
Alternative for Germany (AfD) candidate Leif-Erik Holm at Barner Stueck, near Klein Trebbow, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday. Photo: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa
The xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was running for the first time for seats in the regional parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is projected to possibly unseat Merkel's Christian Democratic Union from second place.
Although the former Communist state is Germany's poorest and least populous, it carries some symbolic meaning as it is home to Merkel's constituency Stralsund.
The polls are also held exactly a year after the German leader made the momentous decision to let in tens of thousands of Syrian and other migrants marooned in eastern European countries.
Although she won praise at first, the optimism has given way to fears over how Europe's biggest economy will manage to integrate the million people who arrived last year alone.
Her decision has left her increasingly isolated in Europe, and exposed her to heavy criticism at home, including from her own conservative allies.
In the sprawling farming and coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where economic regeneration and jobs used to top residents' concerns, the issue of refugees and integration is now the deciding factor for one in three voters.
“I am voting AfD. The main reason is the question over asylum-seekers,” said a pensioner and former teacher who declined to be named.
“A million refugees have come here. There is money for them, but no money to bring pensions in the east to the same levels as those of the west,” he said, referring to the lower retirement payments that residents of former Communist states receive compared to those in the west.
 AfD leader Frauke Petry released a video Friday urging voters to “make history not only in the state-region, but the whole of Germany” by backing the party massively in the polls.
By 1200 GMT, voter turnout had reached 32.8 percent, above the 29.8 percent recorded at the same time in the last elections in 2011.
Illustrating the political damage to Merkel over her policy, a survey published Thursday show her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) expected to garner 22 percent at the polls — only as much as the AfD.
The Social Democrats (SDP) — which had topped the vote in the last polls in 2011 — meanwhile were predicted to win around 28 percent at the elections, two weeks before capital Berlin holds its state polls.
Compared to other parts of Germany, the northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania hosts just a small proportion of migrants under a quota system based on states' income and population — having taken in 25,000 asylum seekers last year.
Most of them have already decided to abandon the state, preferring to head “where there are jobs, people and shops,” said Frieder Weinhold, CDU candidate. But he acknowledged that the “migration policy has sparked a feeling of insecurity among the people.”
 After a series of attacks by asylum-seekers in July — including two claimed by the Islamic State organisation — the mood has also darkened.
Political analyst Hajo Funke estimates that the AfD will win 25 percent of the vote and become the second biggest party in the state.
The neo-Nazi NPD could garner five percent, he said, even if he did not expect Merkel to change course over the vote given the relatively small weight of the state. Yet this would mean that the AfD, which was founded in 2013, would enter yet another regional parliament. The party is now represented on the opposition benches of half of Germany's 16 regional parliaments.
Leading members of the party have sparked outrage over insulting remarks, including one disparaging footballer Jerome Boateng, of mixed German and Ghanian descent, as the neighbour no German wants.
Days ahead of Sunday's vote, Merkel urged the population to reject AfD.
“The more the people who go to vote, the less the percentage won by some parties that, in my view, have no solution for problems and which are built mainly around a protest — often with hate,” she said.
Polls will close at 1600 GMT and first result estimates will be published shortly after. The chancellor, who is attending the G20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou to attend the G20 summit, is not voting in the polls as her main residence is in Berlin.


Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

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‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.