“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.
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.
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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.
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.
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