DEAfD2019By Jabeen Bhatti and Eros Banaj

Berlin--Germany's right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party surged in elections in two former communist eastern states Sunday but failed to take first place as predicted in polls before the votes.

With 94 percent of the vote tallied in Saxony, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) led the state with 32.5 percent of the vote to the AfD's 27.8 percent, according to the state government. The AfD nearly tripled its share of the vote since elections five years ago while the CDU lost almost 7 percent of its support.

In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats (SPD) continued to hold the state with 26.2 percent of the vote, even as the party lost more than 5 percent of its support as compared to five years ago. The AfD won 23.5 percent of the vote, nearly doubling its share over the last election.

Meanwhile, turnout was significantly higher than in the previous elections in 2014. In Saxony, 65 percent of eligible voters went to the polls as opposed to about 49 percent five years ago, according to pollster Infratest dimap estimates. In Brandenburg, turnout slightly topped 60 percent compared to 47.9 percent in the last elections.

Meanwhile, as results trickled in, establishment party leaders conceded they had much work to do in light of the results.

"A few weeks ago, the far right was ahead (of us) but today, there was clear pushback against the AfD – most don't want the AfD to be the strongest party (in Brandenburg)," said SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil. "Nevertheless, these election results are still far too high (in favor of them)."

Meanwhile, the AfD, expressing satisfaction at the results, said they showed that voters were "punishing" the establishment parties and vowed to press on.

"Yes, we have not become the strongest force – there is still some missing pieces – and now, the real work begins," said AfD co-chair Alexander Gauland told German broadcaster ARD. "We won't move the discourse to the right but toward reason."

Sunday’s vote comes as the long dominance of Germany’s centrist parties was already showing serious cracks.

For years, the SPD has been a reluctant coalition partner at best, dragging its heels after the 2017 elections in agreeing to join Mrs. Merkel in another so-called “Grand Coalition,” as many SPD members complained the alliance was steadily dragging down the party’s popularity.

Meanwhile, the CDU has moved more toward the left — leaving a vacuum that the AfD has rushed to fill.

The AfD, which was formed in 2013 as a group that opposed Germany’s policies toward the euro crisis, saw its support surge, especially in the formerly Communist east, because of its staunch anti-immigrant stand. By 2017, it had won seats in 14 out of 16 state parliaments and in the federal government for the first time. Even so, its power has been limited: It usually wins 10-15 percent of the vote and none of the establishment parties will work with the AfD, a stance that is expected to continue in both the eastern states.

Coming just before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the results of the state elections — as well as one in the eastern state of Thuringia in October — underscore the divide that still lingers between the east and the west, and in some cases nostalgia for communist East Germany. A recent ARD poll found that more than half of voters in Saxony and Brandenburg believe that easterners are still second-class citizens.

Still dealing with the collapse of major industries and markets after the Berlin Wall fell, many easterners express frustration and anger at Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats for opening the door to a million refugees in 2015, mostly from Arab and African countries.

The AfD has run on a platform of more investment in education and infrastructure, more deportations of foreigners, a ban on mosques with minarets and less “appeasement of foreigners.”

Some of the resentment, analysts say, comes from a feeling of missing out: In spite of billions of dollars in transfer payments from the federal government since reunification in 1991, investment in infrastructure and the emergence of business hubs in cities such as Dresden, many in the east feel they didn’t benefit as Germany powered ahead in the 2000s to become the continent’s economic engine. For example, wages remain lower than in the East and certain professionals such as doctors remain lacking.

“There is a sense that people in the East haven’t done so well and feel left behind,” said Matthias Lang, an attorney with Bird & Bird in Dusseldorf. “Whether that’s true or not is a different question. But it’s clear that the AfD’s support is higher in areas where people feel this way.”
He adds that any surges of support for the AfD will just make it harder for the Germany’s eastern regions to attract more investment and raise its living standards.

“If you are an investor and you are watching things not going well in a region then you may be less likely to invest there, and this in turn will not make the situation better in that area which will lead to continued unhappiness,” said Mr. Lang. “But where you have a real problem is where there is unwillingness by the population to have foreigners. Then as a foreign company, you would certainly look elsewhere to invest.”

Ingo Kramer, president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA), expressed concern over AfD gains in the two state elections.

"The relative strength of the AfD in Saxony and Brandenburg causes us employers increasingly concern, as the verbal statements of top AfD officials are likely to damage the positive reputation of international business in these states," he told German media. "Both state leaders must understand their clear personal electoral success as a mission to form a government that strengthens the economy and thus improves people's living standards more than it has done so far."

The elections in Saxony and Brandenburg have been watched with growing concern in much of the rest of the country, where the AfD has made gains but rarely topping the low teens. Because of Germany Nazi past, many don’t want to see a party many associate with racism and downplaying that legacy make surges in the East.

In Dresden last month, thousands hit the streets in protest.

“I am panicked that the AfD could win,” said Maria, a teacher in Berlin, 45, who votes for The Left Party. “And I can’t believe it that this could actually become a reality.”

Regardless, the elections underscore a division in Germany that exists and continues to grow across Europe and elsewhere, some say.

"Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, our homeland is more divided than ever," wrote Welt editor in chief Ulf Poschardt in an editorial. "There is no desire to build a road between the two sides. And there is a lack of ideas that could bring together the different factions in the country."

Photo: AfD's candidate for Saxony Joerg Urban (left) and Brandenburg Andreas Kalbitz (right) thanking voters for their support.
Credit: Courtesy photo of the Alternative fuer Deutschland Kompakt official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 09/02/19

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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