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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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GERMANY EXPLAINED

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Compared to many other countries, October 3rd is a relatively new nationwide holiday, marking 32 years since German reunification. Aaron Burnett explains the background to it and why it's celebrated on this particular date.

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany's national holiday

Independence Day in the United States dates all the way back to 1776. Canada Day, celebrated on July 1st, goes back to 1867. France’s Bastille Day on July 14th commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Compared to those national holidays, Germany’s October 3rd is fairly recent, having only been around since 1990.

October 3rd – or Tag der Deutschen Einheit – marks the date that the former West and East Germany officially became one country again, after being divided since the end of WWII. In 2022 it’s celebrated on a Monday, meaning many people will get a long weekend. 

Between 1945 and 1949, the country was split into four occupation zones – held by the Americans, British, French, and the then Soviets. In 1949 the Soviet zone became the communist East Germany – or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), while the rest of the country became the West German Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD).

The Bundesrepublik continues today, but now with the five eastern federal states, plus East Berlin, that were formerly in the DDR.

Why October 3rd and not November 9th?

Less than a year before official reunification on October 3rd, 1990, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.

At first glance, November 9th might seem a better day to commemorate as a national day.

Growing up in Canada, my Gelsenkirchen-born Oma used to talk about the Berlin Wall falling with a slight waver in her voice – and sometimes even tears – decades after it crumbled before her eyes on her television screen.

November 9th, 1989 is remembered by many Germans as the happiest day in the history of the country, but the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall is not observed as a national holiday.

‘It was the happiest day in German history,’ she told me at the time. ‘People were just so amazed at seeing that and no one really thought it would actually happen and guck mal – there it was. It was very emotional at the time and I guess I still am too,’ she would say.

READ ALSO: ‘There was a human tide moving’: Berliner remembers crossing the Wall

For Oma and many other German-Canadians I grew up around, Unity Day felt a little less momentous than November 9th. To them, October 3rd was an important day to observe, but conjured up a few less emotions.

‘November 9th suddenly made the dream of having a unified Germany again seem possible,’ my teacher at Calgary’s German-Canadian Club told me years ago. ‘By the time it was actually official, it just seemed like the final step of something that had been going on for a while already.’

To my Oma, my teacher, and others I grew up around who remembered that time – German reunification seemed inevitable within days of the Wall falling. But it wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. Even after the Wall fell, the DDR and BRD remained separate countries at first.

The months between November 9th, 1989 and October 3rd, 1990 were momentous – and saw several additional events that would pave the way for reunification.

On March 18th, 1990, the DDR would hold its first – and only – free and democratic elections. Won by the East German Christian Democrats, their leader Lothar de Maiziere served as GDR Premier until reunification on October 3rd.

Lothar de Maiziere, the first and only democratically elected leader of East Germany, at a German reunification celebration on October 3rd, 2020.

In Spring 1990, Bonn and Berlin agreed to convert the East German Ostmark – which was practically worthless at the time – to the West German Deutschmark on a largely 1 for 1 basis, with most salaries, prices, and savings being converted straight over.

Finally, the process for legal reunification took months, with the signing of an economic and currency union, the reconstituting of the five eastern federal states that had been abolished in communist times, the official reunification treaty, and the treaty that saw the WWII allies renounce all rights and responsibilities in Germany.

READ ALSO: What unity means to eastern Germans

At the stroke of midnight on October 3rd, 1990 – a reunified Germany became a fully sovereign state for the first time since WWII. That was thanks in large part to both political will and legal work in the months immediately following the Wall’s fall.

Although it seems so normal now, reunification was never guaranteed, which is part of why October 3rd enjoys and deserves its own special commemoration.

November 9th – German history’s double edge

The other major reason why October 3rd serves as Germany’s national day instead of November 9th is that November 9th, while associated with the happy elation of witnessing the Berlin Wall crumble, is also linked to many other momentous – and often solemn – historical commemorations.

On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Within hours, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party both declared the Weimar Republic and a ‘free, socialist republic,’ respectively. It would serve as the first sign of political instability that eventually allowed the Nazis to take power.

On November 9th, 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup that started in a Munich beer hall. He was arrested and wrote Mein Kampf during his time in jail.

November 9th was not chosen as Germany’s national day partly because of the solemn commemorations attached to it, such as Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938.

And on November 9th, 1938, Jewish businesses and synagogues were violently targeted during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” At least 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported.

As happy as November 9th, 1989 was, commemorating it as Germany’s national day would be problematic given the other solemn observances attached to it, which is also part of why October 3rd was chosen.

READ ALSO: Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history

What days does October 3rd replace?

Both East and West Germany had national holidays before reunification. The DDR observed ‘Republic Day’ on October 7th, the anniversary of its founding in 1949. Before 1990, the BDR commemorated June 17th, or the anniversary of the East German uprising in 1953.

October 3rd replaced both days as the national day of celebration. 

Where can you celebrate it?

Unity Day is a national holiday with celebrations readily found around the country.

In Bavaria, Oktoberfest remains open until October 3rd partly to mark the occasion. In Berlin, festivities are readily found around the Brandenburg Gate.

However, each year, a major city plays host to official celebrations and the Unity Day Bürgerfest, or ‘Citizen’s Festival.’ The host city is in the federal state presiding over the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper legislative chamber – that particular year.

For 2022, Erfurt – the state capital of Thuringia – is the host, and next year will see Hamburg take over hosting duties.

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