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Germany’s coalition set for crisis talks after EU vote drubbing

Germany's embattled coalition will hold crisis talks Monday after a thumping at European polls that has reignited questions over its survival.

Germany's coalition set for crisis talks after EU vote drubbing
CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with SPD leader Andrea Nahles. Photo: DPA

Voters handed Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party and its centre-left coalition partner SPD their worst score in European election history, while doubling support for the Greens amid rising fears over global warming.

The Greens also snatched second spot from the Social Democratic Party, coming in just behind Merkel's centre-right alliance.

Crucially, the environmental party took more than a million votes– including many from young people – each from the SPD, led by Andrea Nahles, as well as from the CDU, which is led by Merkel's successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

READ ALSO: Greens surge amid heavy losses for Germany's ruling parties in EU elections

Der Spiegel said the coalition is “in danger” after Sunday's drubbing.

“This instability can lead to a break up at any time. The CDU and SPD are deeply insecure parties. If, for example, SPD leader Nahles were to fall, the question of the continued existence of the coalition would immediately arise.”

The SPD, stung by a beating at general elections in 2017, had initially sought to go into opposition.

But it was reluctantly coaxed into renewing a partnership with Merkel's centre-right alliance, and many within the party remain wary of continuing to govern in her shadow while taking the fall for any unpopular policies.

With the SPD also losing the top spot in stronghold Bremen during state elections Sunday, rumblings of discontent against the leadership may yet grow louder.

Already ahead of the vote, Bild am Sonntag quoted unnamed sources as saying that veteran politician Martin Schulz was ready to stand against Nahles when the parliamentary chief post comes up for renewal in September.

Slapping down the speculation, finance minister Olaf Scholz warned against putting Nahles' role in question.

“Calling for personal consequences would not help,” he said.

READ ALSO: Why can't Germany's Social Democrats pull themselves together?

Blindsided

But the SPD was not the only party in crisis mode after Sunday's debacle.

Merkel's CDU too had been blindsided by youth-led anger over global warming.

Key party figures admitted Sunday that they had campaigned on the wrong topics, as they overlooked climate which had overtaken immigration to become the main worry for Germans this year.

The momentum for the Green surge had been building up over months as the strikes started last November by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 16, not only refused to lose steam but caught the imagination of youth across the world.

The Greens were further lent a boost in Germany by a prominent YouTuber whose online assault against Merkel's coalition accusing it of failing to act to halt global warming went viral.

The CDU struggled for days to put out the fire.

Just two days before the vote, the online star Rezo upped the ante and published a joint call with 70 influential YouTubers telling their millions of followers to shun parties in Merkel's coalition as well as the far-right AfD at the polls.

On Sunday, one in three under-30s picked the Greens, while only 13 percent picked the CDU. The SPD also did not fare better, winning over only 10 percent of the age group.

Party chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is poised to succeed Merkel when the veteran leader steps down in 2021, conceded: “Yes, we made mistakes in this election campaign, that has to be said.”

Markus Söder, who heads Merkel's Bavarian allies CSU, declared the environmental party its main rival.

“The biggest challenge of the future is the intensive debate with the Greens,” he said, adding that “old measures that we had before, are no longer valid”.

Underlining that the CDU-CSU bloc was struggling to win over young voters, he added that “we must work to be younger, cooler and more open”.

READ ALSO: Five things we've learned from the European elections

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ELECTIONS

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

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