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Elections in East Germany will test the power of the extreme right

BERLIN – Five years ago, the nationalist alternative for Germany shook the country’s traditional parties when it landed in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in the regional elections in the eastern federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, an ominous omen for the growing attraction of the extreme right .

This Sunday, the voters in Saxony-Anhalt will be at the polls again, and the result of this state election, which is only three months before a nationwide election, will be examined whether a nationwide weakened AfD can keep the voters in one of the regions, in which it has shown itself to be strongest.

While much of the Saxony-Anhalt competition is unique to the region and focuses heavily on local issues such as schools and economic restructuring, a strong performance by the AfD – who rode a wave of anti-immigration in 2016 – could Armin Laschet. Give the chairman of the Christian Democrats a headache from Ms. Merkel. Mr Laschet, who wants to take over from her in the Chancellery, is struggling to gain a foothold in the former federal states.

“A strong performance by the Christian Democrats would take Mr. Laschet the hurdle and strengthen his position in the national competition,” said Manfred Güllner, head of the political opinion research institute Forsa-Institut.

At the same time he admitted: “If the AfD would do as well as the Christian Democrats, it would have an impact on the Bundestag vote.”

In the midst of an election campaign that was largely conducted online due to pandemic restrictions, Mr Laschet visited the state’s mining region last weekend. He stressed the need for time and investment to successfully get away from coal and promised to provide similar support as his native North Rhine-Westphalia did when it pulled out of coal.

The effort may have been worth it: A survey published on Thursday showed 30 percent support for his party in Saxony-Anhalt, a comfortable seven percentage point lead over the AfD, which is known by its German initials and currently has 88 seats in the German parliament.

If this lead holds, it could strengthen Mr. Laschet’s reputation, as the election campaign for the September 26 elections begins in earnest despite a bloody fight for the candidacy for chancellor against a rival from Bavaria.

In 2016, Germany prepared for the arrival of more than a million migrants in the previous year and Saxony-Anhalt was struggling with the threat of unemployment. While pollsters had predicted that the AfD, which after it was founded in 2013 to protest against the euro, would easily win seats in the state house, no one expected it to take second place and more than 24 percent Support from the two million voters in the region.

Since then, Alternative für Deutschland has swung even further to the right, drawing the attention of the country’s domestic intelligence service, which has put the AfD leadership under scrutiny over concerns about their anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim statements and links with extremists. The state parties of the AfD in Brandenburg and Thuringia are also being scrutinized, while an attempt to monitor the federal party has been put on hold until the outcome of an appeal.

The AfD in Saxony-Anhalt has “become very strong despite the various chaotic and dubious scandals,” said Alexander Hensel, political scientist at the Institute for Democracy Research at the University of Göttingen, who examined the party’s rise in the region. “Instead of breaking up, they have consolidated and become an increasingly radical opposition force.”

The continued support for the alternative for Germany in countries like Saxony-Anhalt has led to a split among many mainstream conservative conservatives over whether the Christian Democrats should be willing to form a coalition with the far-right party if necessary.

Mr. Laschet has made his opinion clear in the last few days. “We don’t want any kind of cooperation with the AfD at any level,” he said in an interview with the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

But in view of the wrangling over the future direction of the CDU after 16 years under Merkel’s largely centrist leadership, some members of the party’s right flank see their exit as an opportunity for a stronger shift to the right.

In December, the conservative governor of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, a Christian Democrat who is running for another term, dismissed his interior minister because he had promised the possibility of a minority government supported by the AfD.

Mr Haseloff has based his campaign on the promise of stability as the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, with promises to help improve living standards in rural areas, many of which do not have enough teachers, health professionals and police officers.

Saxony-Anhalt has the oldest population in all of Germany, which reflects the number of young people who left the country in the painful years after the reunification of East and West in 1990.

While the state has benefited from the recent government’s attempt to create jobs in less populated areas, including through the establishment of several federal agencies in Saxony-Anhalt, the region’s standard of living still lags behind those in similar regions in the former Federal Republic of Germany said Haseloff.

“There are still clear differences between East and West, and not just in the distribution of federal offices,” said Haseloff this week in the run-up to an annual meeting that was about more regional equality.

This time, the alternative for Germany advocated a rejection of the federal government’s policy to curb the spread of the corona virus. “Freedom instead of Corona madness” is one of his posters and shows a blue-eyed woman whose tears roll to the edge of her protective mask.

For the other parties, both the Social Democrats and the Left are in the 10 to 12 percent range, largely unchanged from four years ago.

Both the Free Democrats and the Greens are expected to roughly double their popularity from 2016, which could make it easier for Haseloff to build a government when he returns to office. Analysts said regional wins for them were unlikely to have a major impact on the national race.

“Saxony-Anhalt is a very special situation, they have a unique history,” says the political scientist Hensel. “But regardless of whether the Greens get 10 percent or the Free Democrats 8 percent of the vote, a quarter of the voters support the AfD. You should definitely pay attention to that. “

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