The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany has made strong gains in elections in two east German states but the mainstream parties of left and right also performed better than expected, bringing relief to chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin.
According to projections broadcast by Spiegel Online, the AfD won 27.8 per cent in Saxony, one of its best results in a German election, and 23.5 per cent in Brandenburg, the state around Berlin.
The result showed that “the AfD is here to stay”, said Andreas Kalbitz, the party’s leader in Brandenburg, and that “no politics is possible without us”.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote means the two parties that govern in the two eastern states — the Christian Democratic Union in Saxony and the Social Democratic party in Brandenburg — are likely to be able to stay in power.
However, both will require the support of the Greens, which increased their share of the vote in both states, to form viable coalition governments.
“Whether a government made up of the CDU, SPD and Greens will really be stable is for me a big question mark,” said Jörg Urban, the AfD’s leader in Saxony.
While some polls had indicated that the AfD could emerge victorious in both elections, the CDU won convincingly in Saxony, with 32.3 per cent, and the SPD won in Brandenburg, with 26.2 per cent.
It was still the worst result for each party since German reunification in 1990. The CDU’s vote in Saxony declined by about 7 percentage points, and the SPD’s by 6 points.
The two parties are allies in Ms Merkel’s “grand coalition” in Berlin.
The AfD hailed the result but it brings the party no closer to real political power. All the main parties have ruled out alliances with the populists.
Saxony is at present governed by the CDU in coalition with the SPD. Brandenburg is run by the SPD in coalition with Die Linke, a hard-left grouping with its roots in East Germany’s former ruling Communist party.
The CDU’s good showing in Saxony will relieve the pressure on its leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has struggled to impose her authority on the party since succeeding Ms Merkel as party boss last December. She was blamed for the CDU’s dismal performance in the European elections in May, but the respectable result in Saxony could mark a turnround in her and the party’s fortunes.
The result in Brandenburg will be a relief for the SPD, which had feared being beaten by the AfD. The party is in the process of choosing a new leader to replace Andrea Nahles, who resigned after the European elections. She is agonising over whether to remain in the Berlin grand coalition with the CDU — an arrangement that many in the party say is to blame for the collapse in its standing with voters.
The AfD seized on frustration among voters who were angry about lingering inequalities between east and west, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The east German economy is thriving with low unemployment and stable growth, but wages and pensions remain lower than in the west.
Many Ossis — a nickname for former residents of East Germany — are still traumatised by the economic upheaval that took place after reunification, when hundreds of communist-era factories were closed and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Some rural areas went into terminal decline as young people moved away.
Many in the east fear a new wave of economic turmoil after a decision by the government in Berlin to phase out the mining and burning of lignite, a particularly polluting form of coal, by 2038. The Lausitz, a large lignite-producing area that straddles Brandenburg and Saxony, will be one of the worst affected places.
The grand coalition says it will cushion the effect with €40bn of structural aid, but many in the region feel it will not be enough. The AfD is the only party opposed to the shutdown.
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