Meet the east German Greens candidate offering another alternative

On Sunday the eastern city of Görlitz will vote in a new mayor. Green party candidate Franziska Schubert told The Local how she strives to make her city - where there's been a spike to the right - more open, friendly and innovative.

Meet the east German Greens candidate offering another alternative
Schubert in Görlitz's Old Town. Photo: DPA

Many people all around the world have seen Görlitz – even if they don’t realize it. Often dubbed “Görliwood”, the charming east German border city has been the filming location of several blockbuster films, including 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and 'Inglorious Basterds'.

But most recently the city of 56,000 inhabitants has been capturing headlines for its far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) candidate for mayor, Sebastian Wippel. Many feel that the 36-year-old police superintendent is poised to become the first AfD mayor in Germany in Sunday's elections. 

SEE ALSO: Is Germany about to elect its first far-right AfD mayor on Sunday?

Yet among Wippel's campaign posters plastered around the city can be seen those for another young and fresh face: 37-year-old Franziska Schubert. The Green Party candidate says she wants to offer another, more inclusive alternative to Görlitz residents who have become disenchanted with mainstream politics.

“Görlitz is a beautiful, European city,” Schubert, a member of Saxony’s parliament, tells The Local. “It deserves to have a friendly, open-minded image. With an AfD mayor from the right, we will lose people, students, enterprises and reputation.”

Görlitz’ potential among young people

Called the “Europastadt” (Europe City), Görlitz straddles a strategic location between East and West, with a bridge over the Neiße river connecting it to its Polish sister city of Zgorzelec.

The city is a popular tourist spot, boasting over 4,000 historically listed buildings in an Altstadt (old town) that feels like an outdoor museum. Filled with low-priced flats, it's often marketed as a retirement spot for pensioners from western Germany.

But Schubert – who grew up in nearby Neugersdorf and studied demographic change in former East Germany – sees the city’s potential for attracting and retaining younger residents, too. 

As Görlitz has a lot of empty buildings and unused space, Schubert says she would like to create a model project within an empty house to “bring together young designers and arts.”

“We have to increase the number of start-ups and I’d like to help with such a model project to raise those businesses who are looking for opportunities.”

She also wants to invest in the city’s tram system and boost the use of bikes, in part via a bike-sharing programme. “The future does not belong to the individual car driving,” she says. 

Bikers in Görlitz' Old Town. Photo: DPA

Tessa Enright, 34, an American living in Görlitz, says that her city holds a lot of promise for people “who are creative and have ideas”.

Enright, who runs a travel website about Görlitz and the region, says the city’s old town and her own neighbourhood of Nikolaivorstadt already boast a lot of younger residents living in them. 

When Enright and her husband arrived in Görlitz in 2016 from the state of Arizona, she started a club for English speakers, skeptical that anyone would show up.

“But now we regularly have 10-15 people attending our meetups,” Enright tells The Local, “and are constantly meeting new people who are moving to Görlitz from all over the world.”

An international city

Görlitz residents are going to the polls, starting at 8am on Sunday, the same day that people around Europe are casting their vote in the EU elections. For Schubert, Görlitz is a “real European city” brimming with potential. 

Schubert, who studied international relations in Budapest for a year in 2004-2005, has made better connections with Görlitz' sister city of Zgorzelec a part of her campaign. She and Zgorzelec’s mayor have discussed several cross-border projects that they would like to undertake together. They have already set up a joint project for biking tourism and want to cooperate more intensively on cultural projects. 

“This city is not a complete one,” Schubert says. “It is waiting for people who want to create something, who are searching for freedom, who want to live in a lovely, European city with low-price flats.”

Photo courtesy of Franziska Schubert.

A growth in Greens

While former East Germany has seen a rise in the right in recent years, there's also been an up-shoot in members of Schubert's party, The Greens. In Saxony, membership spiked by 23 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Throughout eastern Germany, the proportion of women, traditionally higher in among the Greens than other parties, also rose slightly, by 39.8 to 40.5 percent. The average age countrywide also dropped slightly from 49.5 to 49 years.

SEE ALSO: 'Younger and more eastern': Green party boasts record membership

Federal managing director Michael Kellner told daily Die Welt in February that the increase was a response to the increasing popularity of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

“The emergence of AfD and Pegida has shaken people awake,” he said. “They want to commit themselves to democracy and openness to the world.”

In Görlitz, that increase is particularly pronounced. The far-right populists in Görlitz won 32.9 percent of the votes in the Bundestag (parliamentary) elections in 2017 and were six percentage points ahead of the Christian Democrats (CDU).

In a recent poll on the current mayoral elections, AfD candidate Wippel came in second place behind CDU candidate Octavian Ursu, 51, and ahead of third-place candidate Schubert. Yet a third of voters remained undecided going into Sunday. 

Schubert says that many people in Görlitz grew increasingly frustrated after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Görlitz was kind of forgotten during the last decades,” she says. Some restoration was done, “but was never in the focus of politics in Saxony.”

Feeling that the politics of the CDU weren’t improving their quality of life – or pushing it to the contrary – many were drawn to the AfD.

“People in Görlitz have had some bad experiences with changes since the Fall of the Iron Curtain,” says Schubert. “Showing how change can be managed is my offer.”

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Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

Best known as an anti-migrant party, Germany's far-right AfD has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to court a new type of voter ahead of regional elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday: anti-shutdown activists.

Germany's far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance
Björn Höcke, party chairman in Thuringia, at an election event in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt on May 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” is how Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, views the measures ordered by the government to halt Covid-19 transmission.

The anti-shutdown stance seems to be paying off in the former East German state. The party is riding high in the polls and even stands a chance of winning a regional election for the first time.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD chooses hardline team ahead of national elections

Surveys have the AfD neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, with the Bild daily even predicting victory for the far-right party on 26 percent, ahead of the CDU on 25 percent.

In Saxony-Anhalt’s last election in 2016, the CDU was the biggest party, scoring 30 percent and forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

But the CDU has taken a hammering in the opinion polls in recent months, with voters unhappy with the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

Social deprivation

A victory for the AfD would spell a huge upset for the conservatives just four months ahead of a general election in Germany — the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.

They started out campaigning against the euro currency in 2013. Then in 2015 they capitalised on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The party caused a sensation in Germany’s last general election in 2017 when it secured almost 13 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the largest opposition party.

Troubled by internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups, the party has more recently seen its support at the national level stagnate at between 10 and 12 percent.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD investigated over election ties

The party is also controversial in Saxony-Anhalt itself. In state capital Magdeburg, posters showing local candidate Hagen Kohl have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and the words “Never again”.

For wine merchant Jan Buhmann, 57, victory for the far-right party would be a “disaster”.

“The pandemic has shown that we need new ideas. We need young people, we need dynamism in the state. For me, the AfD does not stand for that,” he said.

Yet the AfD’s core supporters have largely remained unwavering in the former East German states.

For pensioner Hans-Joachim Peters, 73, the AfD is “the only party that actually tells it like it is”.

Politicians should “think less about Europe and more about Germany”, he told AFP in Magdeburg. AfD campaigners there were handing out flyers calling for “resistance” and “an end to all anti-constitutional restrictions on our liberties”.

Political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University puts the AfD’s core strength in eastern Germany down to “social deprivation and frustration” resulting from problems with reunification.

The party’s latest anti-corona restrictions stance has also helped it play up its anti-establishment credentials, adding some voters to its core base, he said.

Other east German states in which the AfD has a stronghold, such as Saxony and Thuringia, continue to have the highest 7-day incidences per 100,000 residents in the country. Saxony-Anhalt’s 7-day incidence, however, currently is below the national average (31.3) as of Wednesday June 3rd.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Hijab snub

Funke predicted the AfD would attract broadly the same voters in
Saxony-Anhalt as it did in 2016, when it won 24 percent of the vote.

“Some have dropped off because the party is too radical, some radicals who didn’t vote are now voting and some of those who are anti-corona are also voting for the AfD,” he said.

The Sachsen-Anhalt-Monitor 2020 report, commissioned by the local government, found that the main concern for voters in the region was the economic fallout from the pandemic. But the AfD’s core selling point — immigration and refugees — was number two on their list.

According to AfD candidate Kirchner, many people in Saxony-Anhalt still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

“And I think they are right,” he said at a campaign stand in Magdeburg decked in the AfD’s signature blue. “Who is going to rebuild Syria? Who is going to do that if everyone comes here?”

When a young woman wearing a hijab walked past the stand, no one attempted to hand her a flyer.

By Femke Colborne