A portrait of Görlitz, the city that could elect Germany’s first AfD mayor

Will the picturesque eastern city, used as a backdrop for Hollywood films, have another claim to fame on Sunday?

A portrait of Görlitz, the city that could elect Germany's first AfD mayor
Görlitz' Untermarkt, where the 2012 'Measuring the World' was filmed. Photo: DPA

Its cobblestone lanes and Baroque architecture are so quaint that Hollywood directors often come calling, but the German town of Görlitz may soon have a new claim to notoriety. 

A run-off election in the small city of around 55,000 people on the Polish border on Sunday could end in the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party winning its first mayoral seat.

SEE ALSO: Is Germany one step closer to having its first AfD mayor?

Mainstream parties have thrown their support behind the centre-right contender from Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party, meaning AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel, 36, is seen as unlikely to triumph.

But Wippel won the first round in late May with 36 percent of the vote, sending shockwaves through the country already bracing for a strong AfD showing in Görlitz 's Saxony state in a September election.

AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel. Photo: DPA

His closest competitor, 51-year-old Octavian Ursu of the CDU, drew 30 percent and will face Wippel in the run-off.

Green candidate Fransizka Schubert, 37, came in third place with 27.9 percent of the vote. 

However Schubert, whose platform included developing transportation and jobs in the oft-called Europastadt (Europe city), announced on May 31st that she would not be running again.

She cast her support behind Ursu, writing that “Politics means finding compromises.”

SEE ALSO: Meet the east German Greens candidate offering another alternative

The Romanian-born Ursu, who came to Germany as a musician in 1990, argues
that only a “family-friendly Görlitz  that's open to the world” will manage to prosper.

Leading filmmakers and authors have led a call for Görlitz  voters to shun the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim party or risk isolation by the arts community and tourists.

British director Stephen Daldry, who filmed “The Reader” starring Kate Winslet partly in Görlitz , actor Daniel Brühl (“Goodbye Lenin”) and writer Bernhard Schlink have all signed an anti-AfD petition: “Don't give in to hate and hostility, conflict and exclusion.”

The city, which was spared damage by Allied bombing during World War II, has also played backdrop to Hollywood blockbusters including “Inglorious Basterds” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

With hoards of visitors hoping to catch a glance of stars like Clooney, Emma Thompson or Jeff Goldblum at work, the town nicknamed Görliwood has since become a tourist magnet with its spruced up historic city centre nestled on the River Neisse.

SEE ALSO: German stars call on voters to shun far-right AfD in Görliwood

Tourists in Görlitz' picturesque old town. Photo: DPA

'Win back trust'

Despite the Tinseltown glamour, Görlitz  is not immune to many of the problems plaguing Saxony and other regions of Germany's former communist east.

Almost 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Görlitz has suffered from an exodus of talented young people to the richer west.

A burly ex-policeman with close cropped hair and a passion for martial arts, Wippel has adopted the campaign motto: “I won't forget anyone, and certainly not our Görlitzers!”

He is surfing a wave of support, particularly in the east, for the AfD, which has railed against Merkel's 2015 decision to allow in around 1.2 million asylum seekers.

The party is now represented in all 16 of Germany's regional parliaments and polling as the most popular party in both Saxony and Brandenburg state, which will both go to the polls on September 1, followed by Thuringia on October 27th.

The battle for Görlitz's city hall has taken on outsize importance as a bellwether for the three state elections, with the future of Merkel's fragile right-left coalition potentially hanging in the balance.

Görlitz is a picturesque destination, still attracting many tourists over the summer months. 

Wippel said he was not taking the petition against him very seriously, calling it a hollow gesture “by people who don't live in Görlitz”.

Ursu of the CDU told AFP he would “strive to win back the trust” lost by the traditional parties.

'Uncontrolled immigration'

Saxony has received more assistance from the European Union than any of Germany's states, with 2.75 billion euros earmarked for the period 2014-2020.

Nevertheless, the eurosceptic AfD managed to come out on top in the European elections on May 26.

“A whole generation — my generation — is no longer there,” Wippel told AFP, promising to “make them come back” if he becomes mayor.

One look around its tidy streets proves his point. Many shops have “for sale” signs in the window and the locals seem overwhelmingly aged.

A look at Görlitz's old town, leading to the town hall. Photo: DPA

Wippel said his strategy to make Görlitz, which was a major regional trading hub in the Middle Ages, more attractive would include placing a premium on security and fighting immigration.

Görlitz has seen an influx of around 1,000 refugees, including hundreds from war-ravaged Syria, which has made many locals uneasy.

“Things have changed a lot in this town in a short time, particularly with regard to uncontrolled immigration,” said an AfD voter in his 50s who gave his name only as Karsten.

He said his choice on Sunday was for the party “that takes the time to listen” to residents.

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How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

While far-right groups have been celebrating, other politicians in Germany see the results as worrying. Here's a look at the reaction.

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

According to initial projections following Italy’s election on Sunday, the coalition led by Georgia Meloni and her radical right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party has won a majority of seats in the two chambers of the Italian parliament and will lead the next government. 

Meloni is a euro-sceptic who has previously spoken about having an “aversion” to Germany and referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as “socialist” while on the campaign trail.

However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s deputy spokesman Wolfgang Buechner told reporters on Monday: “We of course have to wait for the official final result from this election but at this time what the chancellor would say is that Italy is a very Europe-friendly country with very Europe-friendly citizens and we assume that won’t change.” 

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A Finance Ministry spokesperson added that Berlin expected the new Italian government to continue to respect the stability pact that sets the fiscal rules for the eurozone.

Despite these reassurances from the central government, German politicians in the EU parliament have expressed concern about the new direction for Italy.  

Rasmus Andresen, spokesman for the German Greens in the EU Parliament, said the “unprecedented Italian slide to the right” will have massive repercussions for Europe and for the European Union.

“Italy, as a founding member and the third strongest economy in the EU, is heading for an anti-democratic and anti-European government.”

Though Meloni no longer wants Italy to leave the eurozone, she has said that Rome must assert its interests more and has policies that look set to challenge Brussels on everything from public spending rules to mass migration.

The Greens’ co-leader in Brussels, Thomas Waitz, told Die Welt that the EU can only function if it sticks together, for example on cooperation in energy markets, decisions on Russian sanctions or dealing with the Covid crisis. “Meloni, on the other hand, would back national go-it-alones. It can be a disaster for Europe,”  he said. 

READ ALSO: Euro falls to 20-year low against US dollar

The FDP’s expert on Europe, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, takes a similar view. He said on ARD’s Morgenmagazin that cooperation with Italy in the European Union will become more difficult. He said that it will now be much more difficult to achieve unity in Europe, especially on the issues of migration, reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the single market.

Speaking on RTL, Green Party leader Omid Nouripour called the election results in Italy “worrying” and pointed out that people within the Italian right-wing nationalist alliance have “very close entanglements with the Kremlin”.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that people in Moscow also popped the corks last night,” he said.

Germany’s own far-right party – Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – has been celebrating the victory. 

AfD member of the Bundestag Beatrix von Storch wrote “We cheer with Italy!” on Twitter late Sunday evening.

Referring to the recent elections in Sweden, where the right was also successful, von Storch wrote: “Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: left-wing governments are so yesterday.”

Her party colleague Malte Kaufmann tweeted, “A good day for Italy – a good day for Europe.”

With reporting from AFP