Far-right AfD fails to seize first mayoral seat in Germany

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party lost its bid to capture its first mayor's office in the country in a bellwether election on Sunday ahead of three key state elections.

Far-right AfD fails to seize first mayoral seat in Germany
Octavian Ursu (CDU) at an election party on Sunday. Photo: DPA

In a run-off ballot in Görlitz, Octavian Ursu, 51, a Romanian-born classical musician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU party, drew 55.1 percent of the vote against 44.9 for the AfD's Sebastian Wippel, 36, an ex-policeman.

The contest for Görlitz's city hall was seen as a litmus test for three upcoming state elections in the ex-communist east, with the future of Merkel's fragile right-left coalition potentially on the line.

SEE ALSO: A portrait of Görlitz, the city that could elect Germany's first AfD mayor

The AfD made strong gains in Görlitz's economically struggling Saxony state in May's European elections and hopes to beat Merkel's CDU party in the upcoming regional poll.

With a population of 55,000, Görlitz on the Polish border boasts a quaint historic town centre that has turned the town into a tourist magnet and attracted top Hollywood directors.

Goerlitz has served as a location for films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Inglourious Basterds”, “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Reader”. But many of its young citizens have turned their backs on the town due to a lack of job opportunities.

A shot of Görlitz, looking out to the town hall. Photo: DPA

Wippel had won the first round three weeks ago with 36.4 percent against Ursu's 30.3 percent.

However, Ursu had since attracted the support of the two smaller parties that were out of the race — one of them the Greens, who came third with 27.9 percent last time.

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

'Hate and hostility'

The CDU's Saxony state premier, Michael Kretschmer, who hails from Görlitz, had urged voters to reject the AfD, arguing that “many people underestimate how radical the party is”.

The anti-immigration, anti-Muslim AfD — already represented in Germany's parliament and all 16 regional assemblies — is polling as the strongest party in Saxony as well as Brandenburg state.

Both of those regions will go to the polls on September 1st, followed by another eastern state, Thuringia, on October 27th.

The AfD's parliamentary group leader in Berlin, Alice Weidel, said the neck-and-neck result in Görlitz in the face of strong opposition marked an “enormous success” for her party.

“He nearly managed to become the first AfD mayor: Sebastian Wippel won an
unbelievable 44.9 percent of the vote — it could hardly have been closer,” she tweeted.

Görlitz, a major trading hub in the Middle Ages, was spared damage by Allied bombing during World War II, preserving its cobblestone lanes and Baroque architecture.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost 30 years ago, hundreds of millions
of euros in German and EU funds have been poured into renovating the pretty
old town on the Neisse river.

Despite its expensive facelift, Görlitz long struggled to attract tenants for its renovated buildings, where many shops have “for sale” signs in the windows.

Leading filmmakers and authors also called on the people of “Görlitz” — as the town is also known in Germany — to shun political extremists or risk isolation.

“Don't give in to hate and hostility, conflict and exclusion,” read a
petition signed by actor Daniel Brühl (“Goodbye Lenin”) and British director Stephen Daldry.

By Deborah Cole

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Why east German city Görlitz is courting Poles in Britain

Poles living in Britain may receive a surprise package in the post this Christmas of dried mushrooms, candied fruit and spice cake -- not from Santa, but someone with a less altruistic motive.

Why east German city Görlitz is courting Poles in Britain
Izabela Jucha, a Polish woman who used to live in the UK but whose daughter now goes to school in Görlitz. Photo: AFP/John MacDougall

The parcels of Polish and German delicacies are being sent by the city of Görlitz in Germany's former communist East, as part of efforts to attract Poles in Britain who are tempted to return to the continent because of Brexit.

Faced with labour shortages and an ageing population, the city on the border with Poland has been running a campaign over the past year aimed at the some 900,000 Poles currently living in the UK.

READ ALSO: Eastern German town of Görlitz named best filming location in Europe

Around 100,000 have already left since Britain's referendum on leaving the European Union in 2016.

The campaign has included adverts in British newspapers, a Facebook page and a website with an FAQ in three languages where Poles can find answers to questions such as “Can I transfer my company's headquarters,” “Will my health insurance cover me when I arrive in Görlitz,” and “Can I work in Görlitz without language skills?”

The city's reasonable rents, architectural gems and picturesque cobbled streets are also highlighted as selling points.

Archive photo shows summer tourists in Görlitz's picturesque old town. Photo: DPA
Bilingual classes

Görlitz is a home away from home for Poles, according to Andrea Behr, in charge of investment strategy for the city authorities and head of the project.

“If you go into a bakery, you might well be served by a Polish woman… If you go to nurseries or schools, you will find bilingual classes,” she said.

Some 4,000 of the city's 57,000 inhabitants are Polish, and many others commute across the border every day, drawn by the more generous salaries on the other side of the Neisse river.

Görlitz is just a short hop across the John Paul II road bridge from its Polish twin town of Zgorzelec.

Like most of the former communist East Germany, Görlitz has seen its population decline since German reunification.

The glitz and glamour of “Görliwood”, the city's nickname since blockbusters such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” were filmed there, cannot disguise crumbling facades, boarded-up windows and derelict factories.

Last year, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party found itself in a position to conquer the town hall in Görlitz, with the traditional parties forming an awkward alliance to block it.

“On average, for every child that is born, two people die. In a few years' time, we will be facing a major labour shortage,” said Behr.

The shortage is already making itself felt. From research to blue-collar and manual trades, IT and the medical sector, jobs are not being filled due to a lack of candidates.

Last year, Görlitz's main hospital placed an advert in a major British daily newspaper urging Poles to consider returning home.

The hospital's management did not wish to comment on the advert.

German salaries

According to the mayor of Zgorzelec, Rafal Gronicz, “most of those leaving the UK will want to maintain the same standard of living and will certainly not return to Poland.”

A view of the Saints Peter and Paul Church (Peterskirche) on the banks of the river Neisse in the historical centre of Görlitz. Photo: AFP/John MacDougall

In Görlitz, “they can earn German wages and at the same time be closer to their families, to their country,” he said.

Izabela Jucha is one of those who have already made the move. After moving to the UK when Poland joined the EU in 2004, she now lives in the region with her husband and their daughter, who goes to school in Görlitz.

The family live on the Polish side but Jucha is learning German in the hope of developing her career in human resources in Görlitz, which “presents better economic opportunities”.

READ ALSO: A portrait of Görlitz, the city that could elect Germany's first AfD mayor

Brexit “marked a leap into the unknown… We didn't know if we were going to lose our jobs,” said the 30-year-old, who lived for 12 years in Northampton and Kettering, England, and then in Canada.

“The future of our 14-year-old daughter was a determining factor in our decision,” she said. “The education system here is very good, and free.”

It remains to be seen how successful the Görlitz campaign will be, especially since it was suspended for several months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Moving to a foreign country is not something that can be done overnight,” Behr said. “We must therefore take a long-term view.”

By Yannick Pascuet