German regional elections on Sunday are poised to reshape the political east, devastate mainstream parties – and even catalyse the end of the Merkel era.
Just five million voters are called to the ballot box to elect new state parliaments in Saxony and Brandenburg. But the two polls are viewed as political bellwethers of lingering frustrations over German unification, 30 years on, and growing fatigue with the 14-year reign of Angela Merkel and her liberal migration legacy.
Tapping dissatisfaction in both states is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
A quarter of voters in Saxony and a fifth in Brandenburg are set to back the six-year-old party that emerged in the euro crisis as a bailout critic and is now well on its way to becoming an extremist, xenophobic far-right party under control of eastern regional leaders.
Saxony’s lanky AfD leader Jörg Urban has pitched himself as the anti-establishment candidate to cut funding for immigration projects, introduce referendums on mosque planning applications and boost “welcome payments” – for new parents, once they are German.
In posters and stump speeches he has linked political frustration in the last days of East Germany with political frustrations today, and, though a former East German army officer, has presented himself as the heir to the civil rights movement that ended German division.
“The 1989 peaceful revolution that began in Saxony collapsed a rotten regime and with a strong AfD, it seems as though history can repeat itself,” said Urban, employing words that infuriate real civil rights campaigners from 1989.
In Brandenburg, AfD leader Andreas Kalbitz has shrugged off as “electioneering” revelations of links to neo-Nazi groups including the far-right NPD and the Patriotic German Youth.
Apart from the Greens, all mainstream parties face losses ranging from drastic to cataclysmic. The Social Democrats (SPD) are struggling to retain power in Brandenburg, where they face a 10-point collapse in support, while Saxony’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is also down 10 points in polls from the last regional election.
Chancellor Angela Merkel stood down as CDU leader after disastrous regional results last year. More of the same on Sunday – and at a third regional poll in October – could undermine further a leader now described openly in Berlin as a lame duck.
Figure of hate
She has stayed away from the regional election trail, knowing her approach in the 2015-2016 migration crisis has made her a figure of hate among many fellow easterners.
This week a Syrian man was jailed for involvement in last year’s fatal stabbing of a local carpenter last year in Chemnitz, Saxon’s third-largest city, which sparked a far-right riot.
On Saturday evening local CDU state premier Michael Kretschmer makes a final law-and-order push in Chemnitz, after campaigning at arm’s length from Merkel.
He presides over booming Saxon cities Dresden and Leipzig, and his party has delivered a state jobless rate of 5.4 per cent, near the German average.
Yet Saxony’s CDU leader says he is battling a dark mood of dissatisfaction and an “internet bubble that creates a distorted image of Saxony” and is masterminded by the local AfD and allies in the xenophobic Pegida organisation.
Facing pressure from some allies to co-operate with the AfD, Kretschmer has pushed the Saxon CDU further right to pursue voters lost to the extremist fringe.
A first push came in June when, after visiting Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, he demanded an end to EU sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea. Amid local anger over crimes committed by foreign nationals, meanwhile, the 44-year-old Saxon CDU leader has joined calls for tougher intervention to return failed asylum seekers.
“Many people didn’t agree with what happened in 2015 [when Germany accepted more than one million refugees] and had no way to oppose it, even if we managed it,” said Kretschmer. “It’s a continuous battle that German rules and values are respected.”
What’s already clear is that Sunday’s regional results will change the political climate in Berlin.
More election humiliation for the centre-left SPD will darken its tortured search for a new national leader and boost demands by party leftists to collapse the grand coalition government in Berlin. And CDU results on Sunday could undermine Dr Merkel hopes to stay on as chancellor until 2021.
Her clanger-prone successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, already faces demands to push the party further right to win back support lost to the AfD.
Finally, the expected exclusion of the far-right AfD from any new governing alliances in Saxony and Brandenburg could help, rather than hurt, long-term the party polling 15 per cent nationally.
“If there are multiparty coalitions against them,” said Prof Hans Vorländer, political scientists at Dresden’s Technical University, “that will give a boost to radicals in the AfD.”