Danilo Zoschnik was just 16-years-old in the last state election in Brandenburg when he cast his vote for the Greens.
Now five years later, at the age of 21, he’s one of the youngest candidates standing for the Green party in the former East Germany state that surrounds the capital Berlin.
“If I was elected I’d be the youngest member of the parliament,” Brandenburg-born Zoschnik tells The Local as he passes out leaflets to locals in the city of Bernau. “We are by far the youngest party in the region. We want to make a difference. We want complete changes.”
In fact Zoschnik, who's training to become a teacher, sums up the Greens and their campaign well. “A new start for all generations,” reads his campaign leaflet, while posters across the state are adorned with the simple message: “Hello future”.
When residents head to the polls on Sunday in Brandenburg – a traditional stronghold of the Social Democrats (SPD) – and in Saxony (and then again in Thuringia at the end of October), the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will make huge gains, possibly even winning the most votes.
But the other success story is the Greens. Fresh from their outstanding Germany-wide results in the European elections in May, which saw the party come second after Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the Greens are gaining ground in the east for the first time.
Partly due to the worldwide focus on climate change, which many dub the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’ as well as the decline of the traditional people’s parties in Germany (the CDU and the SPD) plus a charismatic leadership duo, things are looking up for the party that has always struggled for support away from booming urban centres.
“We had 6.2 percent in the last Brandenburg state election,” says Zoschnik. “Now we have polls where’s it’s been between 12 and 17 percent. We are doubling – or even tripling. We are heading up.”
Green candidates Danilo Zoschink and Ursula Nonnemacher in Bernau. Photo: Rachel Loxton
Reality of climate change is all around
Around an hour’s S-Bahn ride to central Berlin, Bernau, with about 39,000 citizens, is surrounded by lush countryside. It’s a gateway to stunning lakes such as the Leipnitzsee, which is popular with locals as well as Berliners.
Parts of the Brandenburg landscape have been badly hit by wildfires and drought in recent heatwaves due to climate change, which could explain why more people are thinking about the environment and plan to vote in a different way.
“The heat, the drought and numerous huge forest fires in this and last year’s summer has raised the consciousness for the reality of climate change,” Green party leader in Brandenburg Clemens Rostock tells The Local.
“We are the only credible party for action on climate change,” he adds. “For example, people recognize our pledge for phasing out of coal and surface mining.”
Voters like Bernau resident Tanja Schrötter, 50, are putting their faith in the Greens.
“I hope that the Greens will win many votes,” she tells The Local. “Because the Green Party is the best party and really thinks about the planet, and we only have one planet.
“The youth, especially with people like Greta Thunberg, realizes that we have to watch out for what the older people are doing.”
Another voter, Ramona, 48, from Bernau, doesn’t know who she’ll give her support to yet but it will be a party associated with helping to stop climate change, such as the Greens or the Tierschutzpartei (Animal Protection Party).
“I hope that mankind will wake up now,” she says. “I hope that now more attention is paid to the environment.
“You have to be blind not to see how everything is changing. There are hardly any insects left, there are fewer birds.”
However Ramona is also concerned about pensions and the retirement age. Can the Greens deliver on other issues aside from the climate?
Green leader Rostock says voters recognize the party’s commitment to “social policies and the welfare state”.
But another plus point luring voters, says Rostock, is the hardline against the AfD.
“Many people are startled by the rise of the AfD and we are the clearest antipole on issues like human rights, migration policy, minority policies, women’s rights, international cooperation, all those things that these populists attack,” adds Rostock.
'We want to be a welcoming country'
The Greens are the polar opposite to the AfD, adds Ursula Nonnemacher, lead candidate for the Greens in Brandenburg (there are two votes on the ballot paper – one for direct candidate in the area and another for a list candidate), underlining that the party will never go into a coalition with them.
“We want to be a welcoming country,” she says. “We don’t want to be a nationalist party. Whatever topic you choose, we have the opposite political standing to the AfD.”
In nearby states Saxony and Thuringia, recent polls put support for the Greens at roughly 11 percent.
This is a long way off the numbers that the AfD is projected to pull in (currently polling in second place at 24.5 percent behind Saxony and 21 percent in Brandenburg, neck and neck with the SPD) but the party will most likely fail to govern because others have ruled out working with them.
Robert Habeck, Greens co-chairman, on the campaign trail in Dresden, Saxony. Photo: DPA
That means the Greens could end up being part of the government in all three eastern states as parties form coalitions in a bid to keep the AfD out.
Voters like Veit Kühne, from Dresden in Saxony, are turning to the Greens for the first time because of the party's stance.
Kühne, a lifelong Free Democrats voter, says he’s supporting the Greens because he saw how they've fought against neo-Nazis in the state of Saxony.
“This time they (the Greens) get my vote. For democracy. For freedom. For a cosmopolitan, friendly Saxony,” he said.
Neglected and forgotten
As the afternoon passes, Bernau locals stop and talk to the Green representatives, with one man arguing animatedly under the bright green umbrella of the election campaign stand. Others carry babies or shopping bags, and take leaflets in a polite manner.
For Inge Benkowski, 87, a Bernau resident for 20 years, her vote will go the Freie Wähler (Free Voters). She points to a poster of Peter Vida, who leads the party in Brandenburg.
“He’s done a lot for Bernau,” she says, mentioning how he’s taken the burden off residents when it comes to local taxes.
Election posters in Bernau. Photo: Rachel Loxton
As for other parties, Benkowski hopes the AfD doesn’t get many votes. “That would be the last thing I’d want,” she says.
So who is voting for the AfD?
According to Arnd Heymann, a business owner born in western Germany who now lives in Neuruppin, Brandenburg and is a list candidate for the AfD, his party's votes come from people who feel neglected and forgotten.
He says there are “massive problems” in parts of rural Brandenburg regarding infrastructure (such as for public transport) and Internet connection.
Plus, many younger people are moving from rural areas to cities “so we are getting older in the countryside and we are getting also poorer,” says Heymann.
He mentions a town of around 200 people where “there is no supermarket, no bakery, no doctor”. “If you’re old you have to have the support of your neighbours to buy you food,” he says.
Heymann adds that economic migrants are a major issue for voters who are turning to the AfD, which rallies against Germany's recent mass influx of refugees.
“People who have worked 46 years have less money than people who have never had a job (in Germany) or took part in our social system,” he says on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers.
'We want to have a friendly Wende 2.0'
When asked why the AfD is using the slogan “Let's complete the Wende” (turnaround), referring to the 1989 peaceful revolution that ended the Soviet-allied one-party state in East Germany, Heymann says: “We are doing it in a friendly way.”
“We are discussing Wende 2.0 because the people in Brandenburg are critical and they see that things didn’t change after 1989 as promised and there might be a need for another “Wende”.
However, he says the party does not want to see people demonstrating on the street, like the events of 1989.
For some in Brandenburg, the AfD is the only choice. Photo: DPA
“We want to have a friendly 'Wende 2.0' by giving the people the right party to vote for which intends to change the forgotten 30 years.”
Nonnemacher says the tactic is clever, because the AfD is targetting voters who feel let down – but she finds the whole thing distasteful.
“They are reclaiming the peaceful revolution of '89 for the AfD, it’s ridiculous,” she says. “The AfD was founded in 2013 in Germany and in Brandenburg in 2014. This is a very young party.”
Bernau resident Schrötter says she doesn’t know anyone who supports the party, adding: “But judging by the numbers, there must be a lot of people voting for the AfD”.
“I try to understand these people, but if they are protest voters, then I ask them [the AFD voters] – please vote for something else,” she says. “The AfD has no solution, it just grumbles.”
Close bonds in party
Meanwhile, Nonnemacher is enthusiastic when she talks to voters and is feeling the energy for her party. The Greens believe there's a bright future for the party in eastern regions.
“It’s amazing,” she says, referencing the “solid” feeling in the Green party under Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock who have been on the campaign trail across the two eastern states as a factor for the spike in support. “The party is very close,” Nonnemacher adds.
At the election campaign stand, a 30-year-old man is talking with Nonnemacher and Zoschnik.
He tells The Local “fresh blood” is needed in politics to make changes and address climate change “because it is almost too late, maybe it's even already too late”.