Germany's far right sets sights on historic upset in key regional vote

Vote in Saxony-Anhalt is final test before September’s general election

People walk over the market in the federal state Saxony-Anhalt's capital Magdeburg, Germany, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The state vote on Sunday, June 6, 2021 is German politicians' last major test at the ballot box before the national election in September that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Voters in Germany will go to the polls in a key regional election on Sunday with the far right seeking to cause a historic upset three months before the country chooses its next leader.

Polls show the anti-Islam, anti-lockdown Alternative for Germany (AfD) in a close race against Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in Saxony-Anhalt.

The state is part of the former East Germany, where the AfD has flourished in recent years and is bidding to become the largest party in a state parliament for the first time in its history.

A poor result for Mrs Merkel's party would heap pressure on its nominee for the September 26 election, Armin Laschet, who emerged as the winner from a bruising internal struggle in April.

Mrs Merkel is not seeking a fifth term after 16 years in power.

“This is the last big test before the federal election in September,” said Prof John Ryan, a Network Research Fellow at CESifo in Munich and a former fellow at LSE Ideas.

“You don’t win federal elections in the East, but you can lose them in the East.”

Oliver Kirchner, Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Saxony-Anhalt state election candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Aken, Germany, on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Saxony-Anhalt holds a state election on June 6. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

Far right takes anti-lockdown stance

The AfD swept into the German Parliament for the first time in 2017 on a wave of anger at Ms Merkel's refugee policy.

Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, said many people still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

During the pandemic, the party has tried to carve out a new niche by vocally opposing lockdown measures.

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” Mr Kirchner said.

It is the CDU who have a lot to lose if they did lose to the AfD

At a national level, support for the AfD stagnated in the past year amid internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups.

But its appeal remains strong in the East, which lags behind the West economically and where the traditional parties have weaker roots.

None of the major parties will contemplate working with the AfD, but a strong performance could lead to messy coalition talks.

“What’s happened to [the AfD] is they’ve got a lot of divisions within their party. It’s just that this particular region is one of their core strengths,” Prof Ryan said.

“There’s still that dichotomy between the East and the West, people still look at it in that way. When you’re resentful, you protest vote and they’ve been very good at catching that.”

High stakes for Merkel’s party

The Christian Democrats (CDU) saw its poll ratings slump in the spring amid anger over Germany’s handling of the pandemic.

Voters rejected the CDU in two regional elections in March where the conservatives took their worst share of the vote in each state since the Second World War.

“They have problems which are not going to go away very soon,” Prof Ryan said.

The bloc was further damaged by a struggle between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, over who should fly the conservative flag into September’s election.

Mr Laschet emerged as the winner ahead of Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, who was seen widely as the more charismatic choice. Leading figures in the Saxony-Anhalt branch of the party supported Mr Soeder.

Sunday’s election is “widely considered a litmus test for Laschet’s ability to lift the CDU and CSU out of [their] losing streak,” said Roland Freudenstein and Jonas Nitschke in an analysis for the Wilfried Martens Centre.

Mr Laschet staged a partial recovery in the polls but “if the AfD beats the CDU, or even comes close, he’ll be in trouble again,” they said.

Most polls put the CDU in the lead, with one late poll boosting the party’s hopes by showing it seven points clear of the AfD.

Such a result could lead to the coalition that has governed the state since 2016, between the CDU, Greens and Social Democrats, being maintained.

“It is the CDU who have a lot to lose if they did lose to the AfD, but I think the CDU will probably get that victory,” Prof Ryan said.

Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of Germany's Green Party and top candidate in the upcoming national election in September, looks on as she addresses an election rally of the Green's in Magdeburg, eastern Germany on May 28, 2021. Saxony-Anhalt will go to the polls in the regional elections on June 6, 2021. / AFP / Ronny Hartmann

Greens look to maintain momentum

With the CDU at a low ebb, the Greens enjoyed a bounce in the polls after choosing 40-year-old former trampolining medallist Annalena Baerbock as its candidate for the election in September.

Typically weaker in the East, the Greens are not in contention to win in Saxony-Anhalt but the party looks set to improve on its 2016 result.

National polls show the Greens in a close race with the CDU/CSU alliance, meaning both Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock are in the frame to be the next chancellor.

Under threat from the Greens in some parts of Germany and the AfD in other regions, the CDU faces a dilemma over its future, the Martens Centre experts said.

“The European centre right’s survival depends on mastering this dilemma, and successfully walking that tightrope without falling off,” they said. “Next Sunday will be an important bellwether for this.”