Germany braces for far-right surge in eastern state elections
Germany could be facing a political earthquake this coming weekend with the far-right looking to emerge in two state elections as the leading political force, a result that could send shockwaves across Europe's biggest economy.
As campaigning in Brandenburg and Saxony for Sunday's elections enters its final days, polls point to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) consolidating its recent political gains following a surge of support in the two eastern German states.
"The AfD has gained significantly since the last state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony and also at the national level," said Berlin's Free University political scientist Arndt Leininger. "Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) has since (the 2017 national election) lost support both at the state and federal level."
Consequently, further gains for the AfD on Sunday would represent another major setback to the nation's mainstream political parties, possibly pushing the CDU to the right. It would also threaten the future of Merkel's fragile ruling coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) and raise fresh doubts about the chancellor's anointed successor, CDU party chief and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK.
Indeed, another slump in support for the ailing SDP would likely strengthen the hand of party members calling for it to re-group by ending its coalition with Merkel. The collapse of the CDU-led coalition with the SPD in Berlin could mark the end of the Merkel era and trigger either fresh elections or pave the way for a new weak minority government.
But despite a series of power struggles in its leadership, a slew of recent voter surveys show the SPD in a neck-and-neck race with the AfD in Brandenburg to become the biggest party in parliament.
In Saxony, which is a key eastern German economic powerhouse, the far-right party is aiming to topple the CDU-led government.
The battle over Brandenburg and Saxony is likely be repeated in October when another eastern German state, Thuringia, goes to the polls and where the AfD is already campaigning for "the mass deportations" of those without any legal right to be in the state.
The outcome of the elections also now threatens to overshadow this year's celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of a popular uprising that swept away the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Many East Germans feel like second class citizens in the new united Germany, according to Dresden Technical University analyst Hans Vorlaender. He says the AfD is seeking to tap into a sense among many in the east that German unification has failed to live up to its promises.
"Dissatisfaction with political parties and the practice of democracy has dramatically increased," said Vorlaender.
"What did they go onto the streets for in 1989? What did they bring the fall of the wall about for? ... (To) be insulted today as Nazis just because they criticise mass immigration and its disastrous consequences?" said Brandenburg AfD leader Andreas Kalbitz in a statement. He described his party as "a freedom project."
Founded only in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD has since drifted to the right seizing on the 2015 refugee crisis to promote an anti-Islam, anti-foreigner and pro-family programme. It is now represented in all of Germany's parliaments - both state and federal.
After heading up governments in Brandenburg for the last 30 years, the SPD's loss of power in the state would represent a further blow to the party, which is currently battling to forge a new leadership in Berlin team after support for the national party plunged to historic lows.
Pollsters tell a similar story about the SPD in Saxony, where the party managed to scrape together less than 10 percent of the vote. Another grim set of results for the CDU on the weekend would also likely boost those party members arguing for the party to counter the AfD with a tougher, more right-wing, message.
A bigger than expected loss for the CDU means "AKK will come under even greater pressure," said Leininger.
It could also diminish AKK's chances of succeeding Merkel as chancellor after she has been beset by a series of gaffes and missteps - even prompting speculation about alternative candidates to lead the party.
"Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer almost never misses a chance to make a faux pas," said University of Leipzig political scientist Hendrik Traeger. "She appears very unlucky as party leader." (dpa)