View from Saxony: Why the far-right AfD is surging in eastern Germany

There is growing recognition that the dramatic upheavals east Germans suffered after reunification in 1990 have not been adequately addressed.

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In early August, as campaigning for this week’s elections in the German state of Brandenburg intensified, a campaign poster began to appear on lamp posts and tram stops. It featured an image of former German chancellor Willy Brandt and his famous slogan, “Dare to be more democratic!” Printed below Brandt’s image were the words: “We’re writing history!”

The poster belonged to the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Brandt was West Germany’s chancellor between 1969 and 1974, and was also leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which immediately accused the AfD of co-opting Brandt’s democratic legacy for anti-democratic ends. Speaking to the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, the former SPD president of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, labelled the poster a “gross abuse and simply obscene”.

The controversy highlights the far right’s rising popularity in the region. With elections taking place on 1 September in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony, the AfD looks poised to surpass Germany’s governing parties – Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD – as the strongest party on a state level for the first time in its history. The AfD is currently leading the polls in Brandenburg and is almost level with the CDU in Saxony. On 27 October, another eastern state, Thuringia, will vote in what the government fears could be a sweeping win for the far right.

These elections are a litmus test for Merkel’s tenuous coalition. After a poor showing in the national elections in 2017, the centre right and centre left have watched their once broad-based support disintegrate across the country; in May’s European Parliament elections, both suffered historic losses. As is the story across Europe, Germany’s political centre is fracturing. Pre-election campaigning has also triggered a debate over east Germany, and why 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it appears to be drifting away, politically speaking, from the rest of the country.

Reunification has in many ways been a remarkable success story: east Germany boasts rising wages, top universities and booming cities. Unemployment in the east fell to 7.6 per cent in 2017, compared to 17 per cent in 1999. But salaries and pensions remain lower in the east than in the west; the population is ageing faster; there are no east German companies listed on Frankfurt’s blue chip stock market index (DAX), and almost no major company has its headquarters in the region.

There is growing recognition that the dramatic upheavals east Germans suffered after reunification in 1990 have not been adequately addressed. Rife unemployment in the 1990s emptied out towns and cities as the young and entrepreneurial-minded headed west. According to the Institute of Economic Research in Dresden, the east German population has dwindled to the size it was in 1905, while the west German population is higher than ever before. This has fostered resentment and feelings of neglect – ripe ground for the AfD.

Saxony has emerged as the far right’s heartland, with the AfD winning a 25 per cent share in May’s European vote. It has gained a deep foothold in Brandenburg, too, particularly in the coal mining regions, where Merkel’s government has vowed to shut down plants in order to meet carbon emissions goals.

Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at the University of Mainz, told me that in the former East, voter volatility is high because party loyalties don’t run as deep, making it “far easier for a new party like the AfD to mobilise voters there”. It has done so by professing to be the party of the east – a spurious claim considering the party’s leaders in Brandenburg and Thuringia are west Germans. It has endeavoured to inspire east Germans to spark a political revolution of sorts, skilfully adopting the language, imagery, and memories of 1989, when thousands of GDR citizens took to the streets to demand democracy.

I asked the SPD’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, whether Germany’s traditional parties had neglected east Germany. “I know it’s difficult to win elections here,” he admitted. “We have to make sure we win back trust and credibility... I think the AfD is going to disappoint people.”

Meanwhile, the AfD’s candidate in Meissen in central Saxony, Thomas Kirste, told me that migration and law and order are the major priorities for voters in his state. If in power, his party would clamp down on economic migration, which he sees as abuse of Germany’s welfare system, and expand the police force. “We have to restore the feeling of safety,” he said.

But they are unlikely to get the chance to enact their programme. Even as the strongest party, the AfD will struggle to find a coalition partner – the CDU has refused the notion. That will force the remaining parties to cobble together whatever majority they can muster, forming awkward two- or three-party coalitions that span the political spectrum. But it is difficult to imagine that an alliance between, say, the CDU and the democratic socialist party Die Linke, could govern effectively with little more than their opposition to the AfD holding them together.

The stakes are high in these elections for an additional reason. Another drubbing for the CDU-SPD coalition could prompt Social Democrats to pull their support from the federal government, triggering new national elections and hastening the end of Merkel’s long reign in office. 

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler