All eyes are on eastern Germany as elections take place in Saxony and Brandenburg on Sunday, September 1st.
And, for the first time in German history, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) could win in state elections – and make it extremely difficult for the established parties to form a government.
The elections will also send shockwaves to Berlin where the so-called grand coalition between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) is already on shaky grounds.
AfD ahead in Brandenburg
In recent surveys, the far-right party has overtaken the SPD and CDU in Brandenburg, signalling that support for them in the neighbouring state of Berlin is high.
According to the latest poll by Forsa for the regional newspaper, Märkische Allgemeine, the AfD was ahead with 21 percent of the vote, followed by the CDU, which scooped 18 percent and the SPD with 17 percent. The Greens came in at 16 percent, The Left (die Linke) at 14 percent.
Brandenburg's government is currently run by a coalition between the SPD and The Left, who have governed together since 2009, with Dietmar Woidke from the Social Democrats as state premier.
In the last election in 2014, the SPD won a large majority: 33 percent of the vote and The Left won 27.2 percent. But the political landscape in Germany has undergone a huge transformation since then, with the so-called 'Volkspartei' (people's parties – the CDU and SPD) haemorrhaging support.
The Green party has experienced a surge in support across Germany – and could even surpass the SPD in Brandenburg.
Parties have said they will not work with the AfD, so after the vote they will be scrambling around to try and form a coalition that would stop the group from coming to power.
Yet there has been some controversy. The AfD in Brandenburg is making waves over their use of campaign posters – not for the first time. For this election, the slogan is “Wende 2.0”. Wende (turnaround) describes the period of political change when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified. Many have slammed the party for appropriating German history for their own gain.
With slogans such as “Vollende die Wende” (complete the turnaround), the party is implying that if voters opt for them, they can finish the work of those who led the Peaceful Revolution.
“In the end, they are telling people that they must now take to the streets in a way similar to 1989 and ultimately bring the system down,” said German journalist Liane Bednarz.
Andreas Kalbitz, chairman of the AfD in Brandenburg, speaks in Saxony in July. Photo: DPA
The AfD has also been slammed for displaying former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt on its electoral campaign posters.
The posters show Brandt captioned with his quote: “Dare to be more democratic!” Underneath the caption is the AfD's logo alongside “Vote for the AfD!” and “We're writing history!”
Willy Brandt steht für Frieden, Freiheit & die Einheit Deutschlands. Die AfD für Spaltung und Hetze! Im Westen, im Osten, einfach überall. Aber hey, in Geschichte war die AfD ja noch nie gut… https://t.co/T76n8BIvQK. #noAfD #sltw19 #EinBrandenburg
— Lars Klingbeil ?? (@larsklingbeil) August 7, 2019
On Twitter, SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil said Brandt stood for “peace, freedom and unity” in contrast to the AfD's support for “division” and “rabble rousing.”
Close race in Saxony
In nearby state Saxony, it’s also tight: some polls have shown the AfD on top. However, in the latest survey by the opinion research institute Civey for Spiegel Online, the Christian Democrats come in at 28 percent, just ahead of the AfD, which reaches around 25 percent.
In any case, forming a government in Saxony after the election is likely to become very complicated. Like in Brandenburg, CDU state premier Michael Kretschmer has categorically ruled out cooperation with the AfD.
A possible option would be an alliance of CDU, Greens and SPD, modelled on the government of Saxony-Anhalt. The relationship between the CDU and the Greens, however, is strained in Saxony.
Even if the AfD do not get into power in the Brandenburg and Saxony governments, their increased support means they will likely have more influence and a larger platform both at the state and federal level.
What's the reason for the surge in the east?
As the Local reported in our story on how Chemnitz is recovering from anti-migrant riots that rocked the city a year ago, it’s clear immigration is a big issue for voters.
In a survey for Spiegel by opinion research institute Civey, migration and asylum was deemed the most important topic for voters in Saxony, followed by internal security.
Other themes of note are economics and wages, rural infrastructure, education and childcare, housing and social policy.
Since it was founded as a Euro-sceptic party in 2013, the AfD has had considerable electoral success, especially in the east.
Since 2016, the AfD has become the second strongest party in Saxony-Anhalt (24.3 percent), as well as in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (20.8 percent). It has not yet managed to become the strongest force at state level.
So why the increasing support? Former state premier of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck (SPD), told DPA there was an “unpleasant mood” that had grown stronger among people, especially in eastern Germany.
Platzeck put this down to the fall of the Wall in 1989, the financial crisis in 2008 and the refugee crisis in 2015, “all in one generation,” he said.
In addition to Saxony and Brandenburg, Thuringia will also go to the polls October 27th in a vote that will also see the AfD make huge gains.
Cooperation with the AfD
And what do voters think about parties not cooperating with the AfD? It's a mixed picture. A recent poll found that in the west 59 percent of voters said it was 'correct' that other parties ruled out working with the AfD, while 36 percent said it was wrong.
In the east, 50 percent said that stance was right, compared to 45 percent who said it was 'incorrect' that parties did not plan to cooperate with the AfD.
Graphic by Statista for The Local.
Meanwhile, the poll also found that in western states, a huge 72 percent said the AfD in a state government would be worse than before, with 7 percent saying it would be better.
In eastern states, 57 percent said the AfD entering a state government was a bad idea, while 15 percent said it would improve the current situation.