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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Germany after Merkel: This is the duo vying for a spot as the first ever Green chancellor candidate

The Green party are about to do something they’ve never done before. On April 19th, they are going to announce their first ever candidate for Chancellor of Germany. Who are the candidates and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Germany after Merkel: This is the duo vying for a spot as the first ever Green chancellor candidate
Annalena Baerbock (l) and Robert Habeck. dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Since entering the Bundestag for the first time in 1983, the Green party have remained a minor force, only once gathering enough votes to make it into double figures.

In some ways this outsider status has made things easy. The Greens have traditionally struggled with the contradiction between their anti-authoritarian principles and being part of a system of power. For decades, Fundis (fundamentalists) on the left of the party ensured that the Social Democrats were the only acceptable coalition partner.

In the past few years though, that has changed. At the state level they are now involved in 11 governments, mixing and matching with Social Democrats, Free Democrats and even Christian Democrats.

Since 2018 they have been led by a duo from the so-called realo wing – moderates who favour coalition building and compromise over finger wagging and moralism.

Now polling just a few points behind the CDU – and clearly ahead of the Social Democrats – they need to make the ultimate statement of intent – naming the person they want to lead the country.

Co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock will decide between themselves who will run – something the Greens once would have called the Hinterzimmerpolitik (back room policy) of the traditional parties.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Greens to put forward first chancellor candidate

But the leading duo are only distant relatives of the 1,004 delegates who set up the party on a cold January day in 1980 on a programme of anti-capitalism and pacifism.

                                  Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck in March 2021. Photo: DPA

Baerbock, who wasn’t yet born when the Greens wrote their first programme, recently said that she wasn’t opposed to drone warfare as long as the legal framework was sound. Habeck says he supports globalization, just not the type we have right now.

A picture of marital bliss

In contrast to the naked power struggle currently being played out at the top of the conservative CDU/CSU though, the Green leadership do a good job of portraying themselves as disinterested in personal gain.

Habeck told an interviewer last month that “the stronger decision is sometimes the one that means you open the door for someone else”, while he likes to love-bomb his co-leader on Instagram.

Baerbock has conceded that it would be “a little prick to the heart” if she didn’t run, but has never said anything that even the most suspicious journalist could interpret as a veiled barb at Habeck.

The two famously share a desk at the party HQ and have the same office manager who divides up all official engagements between them on an exact 50/50 basis.

This picture of marital bliss makes it almost impossible to tell which of the two will be announced on April 19th as Chancellor candidate.

The soft soul

Just a year ago, almost no one doubted that Habeck was the natural choice.

An author of several books of philosophy and poetry, the 51-year-old is viewed by fans as a modern day Marcus Aurelius – a self-reflective philosopher king who would rule with justice and vision by day, while ruminating on his own weakness by night.

Habeck “goes further than Hannah Arendt” in his commitment to a philosophy of dialogue and “has a special ability to think through the possible effects and side effects of political decisions,” wrote Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a veteran Green politician, in an article in Die Zeit this week that called for the male co-leader to take a crack at the Chancellery.

A recent opinion piece in der Spiegel came to a similar conclusion. “Habeck has turned self-doubt into his political engine. Trying to run the state in this fundamentally different way would both challenge and enrich the machinery of power,” wrote columnist Susanne Beyer.

Watch any interview with Habeck and it is clear that the Greens have something of a gem in modern politics: a man who thinks while he talks and doesn’t just rattle off pre-prepared sound bites.

READ MORE: Greens will replace SPD long term, says pollster

But is a man consumed by “what if?” questions really suitable for the top job in Germany politics, especially at a time of crisis?

Critics suspect that Habeck can flatter to deceive. According to this reading he is a high end Boris Johnson: ultimately a vain man who hides his lack of attention to detail behind lofty and obscure language.

Indeed, Habeck’s self-professed humility jars somewhat with his well documented love of a photo shoot. He has found his natural home on Instagram, a social media platform that allows him to emphasise his natural good looks while avoiding the ruff and tumble of Twitter.

The Lübeck native has a tendency to make unforced errors when trying to score points on policy detail. Recent examples include failing understanding how commuter flat rates work, and misunderstanding the role of the financial regulator.

For his backers, this isn’t a problem. After years of technocratic Merkelism, Germany needs a leader who thinks big rather than gets bogged down in detail, they say.

The political nerd

Baerbock is a different proposition.

She has worked her way up through the party machinery, first acting as a political advisor in Brussels before gaining election to the Bundestag via the list system. A details person, she claims to love the work of thrashing out policy in the party’s internal think tanks.

In interviews, she has a tendency to go very deep into the technical detail of policy choices, while batting away questions she doesn’t feel like answering. Like traditional politicians from the mainstream, she makes a concerted effort to display self-assuredness and calm.

“She’s is the better candidate because she demands more of herself and has a better grasp of the facts,” writes Constanze von Bullion for the Süddeutsche. “She radiates the robust ‘I will’ that Habeck lacks. In an election campaign that will be tough and dirty, her nerve and bite are likely to be more useful than Habeck’s vulnerability.”

READ ALSO: Germany’s Greens propose speed limit on Autobahn if elected

But for fans of politicians with a fragile soul, Baerbock’s attributes are too ordinary.

Her “consciousness of power means she isn’t that different to Markus Söder”, sniffs Spiegel columnist Beyer.

One Green party insider told Die Zeit that “with Annalena we will score between 17 and 19 percent, with Robert we could end up with a result anywhere between 14 percent and 24 percent”.

In other words: the choice is between a safe pair of hands and an engaging but unpredictable visionary.

In the end though, the decisive factor could be one that neither of them can do anything about: the fact that Baerbock is a woman.

The Social Democratic candidate is Olaf Scholz; the CDU/CSU are set to campaign behind either Armin Laschet or Markus Söder. There is enormous pressure for the party of women’ rights to run a female candidate, while party statutes suggest that the female candidate should have priority.

Habeck has hinted that, if his co-leader wants to run, he won’t stand in her way. Whether that is all part of his show or a genuine act of humility, we will soon find out.

This article first appeared in Hochhaus – letter from Berlin, a bi-weekly newsletter on German politics