Germans in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt headed to the polls on Sunday, and the far right posed a tough challenge to Angela Merkel’s conservatives in the last big test before the first general election in 16 years not to count on the veteran chancellor.
Saxony-Anhalt is one of the smallest states in Germany with a population of 2.2 million, but with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union running side by side with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) there, which is in stake could not be higher for the region. vote.
A victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow to conservatives and seriously weaken the already fragile position of new CDU leader Armin Laschet in the run-up to Germany’s national elections on September 26.
“If it turns out that the AfD is a bit stronger than the CDU on Sunday, then there could be staff debates at the CDU and thus a weakening of the whole CDU situation,” said political scientist Hajo Funke, from Free University, he told AFP.
Merkel’s party has been a dominant force in the eastern region for decades, spearheading all but one state election since reunification in 1990.
But the AfD was established there in the last state elections of 2016, capitalizing on anger over Merkel’s decision to allow in a wave of migrants from conflict-torn countries like Syria in 2015.
In that election, the CDU obtained 30% of the votes, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. The AfD won 24%.
The latest polls published on Friday by the daily Bild have the CDU at 27%, one point ahead of the AfD.
Although support for the AfD at the national level has stalled at around 10-12% in recent months, the party remains popular in the former East German states.
Its recent move to present itself as the party criticizing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, drawing support beyond its main anti-immigrant voter base.
The AfD will not be able to rule even if it wins in Saxony-Anhalt, as all 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, who was nominated as a candidate for Conservative chancellor in April.
“Laschet urgently needs a hit to rally the Union behind him for the national election campaign,” the magazine said. “The last thing he would need is a renewed debate on the AfD within his party, which would become unstoppable in the event of an electoral defeat in Saxony-Anhalt.”
Conservatives have already received a hammer blow in the polls as Merkel prepares to retire, wounded by anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.
In Germany’s last regional elections in March, in the states of Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg, the CDU suffered its worst results in both states.
Meanwhile, the Greens, who are vying for first place nationally, could also draw votes from the CDU.
The party, which has traditionally fought in the former East Germany, appears willing to double its share of the votes in Saxony-Anhalt from 5% in 2016 to about 10% this time.
The CDU, which Merkel has moved closer to the center, is essentially caught between the two fronts: the far-right AfD at one end and the center-left environmentalists at the other.
Laschet has promised to maintain the CDU as the “force in 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 nationalistic” than in the west.
This means the CDU needs to “set different thematic priorities in the east and the west” if it is to maintain its broad base of support, he said. “It is not an easy task.”