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Merkel’s CDU faces final test as Germans vote in regional elections

Germans were heading to the polls in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, with the far-right posing a tough challenge to Angela Merkel's conservatives in the final major test before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.

Merkel's CDU faces final test as Germans vote in regional elections
Germans in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt are heading to the polls on Sunday, with the far-right posing a tough challenge to Chancellor Merkel's conservatives in the final major test before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

Saxony-Anhalt is one of Germany’s smallest states with a population of just 2.2 million, but with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union running neck-and-neck with the far-right AfD there, the stakes could not be higher for the regional vote.

Victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow for the conservatives and seriously weaken the already fragile standing of the CDU’s new leader Armin Laschet in the run-up to Germany’s national election on September 26th.

“If it turns out that the AfD is slightly stronger than the CDU on Sunday, then there could be debates about personnel in the CDU, and thus a weakening of the entire situation of the CDU,” political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

READ ALSO:  ‘CDU in weak position’: Merkel’s conservatives face crucial test in Germany’s regional elections

At a polling station in Magdeburg, voter Thomas Kibele told AFP he hoped “that many people vote, that the turnout is high, and that we show that populist parties basically have no chance”.

“I think today the CDU will be ahead, followed unfortunately by the AfD and then let’s see,” said fellow voter Karl Mueller.

Merkel’s party has been a dominant force in the eastern region for decades, topping all but one edition of state elections there since reunification in 1990.

But the far-right AfD established a strong foothold there in the last state election in 2016, having capitalised on anger over Merkel’s decision to allow in a wave of migrants from conflict-torn countries such as Syria in 2015.

Reiner Haseloff, Saxony Anhalt’s State Premier and top candidate of his conservative Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) party, and his wife Gabriele, leave a polling station after voting on Sunday in Wittenberg, eastern Germany. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

In that election, the CDU scooped 30 percent, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. The AfD won 24 percent.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Latest polls published Friday by the Bild newspaper had the CDU at 27 percent, one point ahead of the AfD.

A ‘disaster’ for conservatives

Although support for the AfD at the national level has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent in recent months, the party continues to be popular in the former East German states.

Its recent move to style itself as the party bashing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, attracting support beyond its core base of anti-immigration voters.

The AfD will not be able to govern even if it wins in Saxony-Anhalt, as all the other parties have ruled out forming an alliance with it.

But losing to the AfD would be, as Spiegel magazine puts it, “a disaster” for Laschet – nominated as the conservative chancellor candidate in April.

READ ALSO: Meet Armin Laschet, the king of comebacks grasping for Merkel’s throne

“Laschet urgently needs a success to rally the Union behind him for the national election campaign,” said the magazine.

“The last thing he would need is a renewed debate about the AfD within his party, which would become unstoppable in case of an election defeat in Saxony-Anhalt.”

CDU is the ‘force of the political middle ground’

The conservatives have already taken a hammering in the polls as Merkel prepares to bow out, hurt by anger over the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

At Germany’s last regional elections in March – in the states of Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg – the CDU suffered its worst ever results in both states.

With Merkel having pulled the CDU closer to the centre, it is essentially caught between two fronts – with the far-right AfD on one end and the centre-left Greens on the other.

Laschet has promised to maintain CDU as the “force of the political middle ground”.

But political analyst Oskar Niedermayer told AFP that the reality is that voters in the east tend to be “more conservative and more nationalist” than in the west.

This means that the CDU needs to “set different thematic priorities in the east and in the west” if it wants to maintain its broad base of support, he said.

“That is no easy task.”

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POLITICS

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Eclipsed by two Green party ministers over his response to the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is battling to wrest back public approval - starting with a speech to parliament on Thursday.

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Scholz, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are in power with the Greens and the liberal FDP, has faced a barrage of criticism over his perceived weak response to the war, including his hesitancy over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Green party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck have impressed with their more vocal approach, topping a recent survey of the country’s most popular politicians.

Scholz’s party suffered a crushing defeat in a key regional election at the weekend, losing to the conservative CDU with its worst-ever result in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Greens, meanwhile, almost tripled their score compared with five years ago to finish in third place and look almost certain to be part of the next regional government.

READ ALSO: Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

Der Spiegel magazine called the result a “personal defeat” for Scholz after he was heavily involved in the election campaign, appearing on posters and at rallies.

Already famous for his lack of charisma before he became chancellor, Scholz now appears to be paying the price for dragging his feet in dealing with Moscow over fears of escalating the crisis.

In a bid to win back the public, Scholz has in recent days given lengthy television interviews.

On Thursday, he will be explaining his policy to lawmakers ahead of the EU summit at the end of May.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Sitting tight

In a devastating reading of Scholz’s outings so far, the weekly Focus assessed that “his language is poor, his facial expressions monotone and his body language too understated.”

According to Der Spiegel, the chancellor’s communications strategy seems to revolve around one mantra: “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Other media have accused him of stubbornly sticking to the same plan and ignoring what is going on around him.

“His party is plummeting, but the chancellor feels that he has done everything right… Doubts and questions rain down on him, but Olaf simply sits tight,” said Der Spiegel.

Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit has defended the chancellor, suggesting that the public value his calm demeanour and would find it “inauthentic” if he tried to turn himself into Barack Obama.

READ ALSO: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

But for political scientist Ursula Münch, Scholz does not come across as calm and measured but rather “imprecise” compared with his colleagues from the Green party.

Scholz has also not been helped by the fact that Defence Minister and fellow SPD politician Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.

‘Strong moral underpinning’

Baerbock, meanwhile, has turned around her public image after a series of blunders during the 2021 election campaign, coming across as clearer and more decisive than Scholz in her response to the Ukraine crisis.=

The 41-year-old former trampolinist has become the face of Germany at international summits, from the G7 to NATO, and in early May became the first German minister to visit Kyiv.

Habeck, meanwhile, has impressed with his dedication to weaning Germany off Russian energy.

And their meteoric rise is all the more surprising given the Green party’s traditional positioning as a pacifist party opposed to sending weapons to conflict zones.

For the first time in their 42-year history, according to Der Spiegel, the Greens are being judged not on “expectations and promises” but on their performance in government.

“The strong moral underpinning of the Greens’ policies and the fact they openly struggle with their own principles comes across as approachable and therefore very credible,” according to Münch.

“Of course, this increases their clout compared with the chancellor.”

She therefore predicts an “increase in tensions” between the Greens, the SPD and the FDP, with life not expected to get easier for Scholz any time soon.

By Mathieu FOULKES

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