Far-right gains likely in German state polls

BERLIN • Germany's far-right AfD party was hoping for strong gains in yesterday's elections in two former communist states, potentially shaking Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile coalition government.

The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) has polled strongly in both Brandenburg and Saxony states, part of its eastern electoral heartland.

Aside from railing against Islam and asylum-seekers, the AfD has capitalised on resentment about a lingering east-west wealth gap since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Let's complete the Wende (turnaround)," it has vowed, referring to the peaceful revolution that ended the Soviet-allied one-party state and brought reunification in 1990. The AfD has long co-opted the former pro-democracy chant "We are the people" and turned it against what it labels the "Merkel regime".

Eastern Germany is home to several of the AfD's most extremist leaders, among them Mr Bjoern Hoecke, who has labelled Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "monument of shame". His close ally Andreas Kalbitz, 46, who has had deep ties to right-wing extremist groups, is the top candidate in Brandenburg.

In Brandenburg, the AfD has been polling neck and neck with the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), both at just over 20 per cent. In Saxony, where the anti-Islam Pegida street movement was born, the AfD has slipped back somewhat behind the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

But even if the AfD emerges as the strongest party in either state, the other major parties are expected to shut it out from governing by forming coalitions to achieve legislative majorities.

Political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder of Kassel University said election gains could therefore spell a "successful failure" for the AfD.

A third election will be held on Oct 27 in the state of Thuringia.

But even if the AfD emerges as the strongest party in either state, the other major parties are expected to shut it out from governing by forming coalitions to achieve legislative majorities. Political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder of Kassel University said election gains could therefore spell a "successful failure" for the AfD.

The AfD, formed six years ago as a Eurosceptic group, now focuses mainly on fear and anger over Germany's mass migrant influx since 2015.

Dr Merkel, who grew up in the east, has avoided campaigning in the region, where she has in the past faced harsh abuse. An election debacle for either her CDU or junior coalition partner SPD would pose another threat to their uneasy coalition.

Poor results for the SPD, already demoralised by a string of election defeats, would boost internal critics who want the party to quit Dr Merkel's government quickly.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2019, with the headline 'Far-right gains likely in German state polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe