Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

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When Armin Laschet’s motorcade arrived at a campaign stop in eastern Germany last week, there was no crowd of supporters to greet him. Just one elderly woman with her walker.

She said she’d postponed a massage appointment to see the front-runner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor and asked him for an autograph. With no one else to distract him, Laschet politely gave her three.

Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

While the 60-year-old candidate from Merkel’s Christian Democrats remains the narrow favorite to lead the next government, his reception in the city of Dessau is a sign of the apathy dogging his campaign. After surviving a bruising power struggle with a conservative rival to secure the candidacy, Laschet risks being knocked off course by the far-right Alternative for Germany on Sunday, when the country’s poorest state heads to the polls.

“There’s a lot at stake in this election,” Laschet said during the event last week in Dessau, the former center of the Bauhaus design movement. “Everybody should go vote. Otherwise, there will be a rude awakening on Monday,” he warned.

Saxony-Anhalt, a rural region in the former communist East, represents a major test for the CDU chief. If the party fails to defend its position as the state’s strongest political force, it could again raise questions about his suitability to lead the conservative bloc for September’s national vote.

Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

While the region barely registers on the national map, there could be broader implications if the AfD wins. The anti-immigration movement is seeking to tap into frustration with coronavirus restrictions and has even led in one recent poll. A victory on Sunday would be the party’s first on the state level and set off complicated political maneuvering to keep them out of Saxony-Anhalt’s government.

That could destabilize Laschet, a consensus-seeking moderate in Merkel’s mold, just as the national campaign gets rolling. Many in the East -- including Reiner Haseloff, the Christian Democratic premier of Saxony-Anhalt -- wanted Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder as they sought a bigger break after 16 years under Merkel.

“There are still many Soeder fans here,” Dessau Mayor Peter Kuras, a member of liberal Free Democrats, said on the sidelines of Laschet’s campaign event. “Many AfD supporters are former CDU members who could be lured back by the right candidate.”

Saxony-Anhalt in Brief
  • CDU and the AfD are vying to be the strongest party in the state. Current government is a three-way coalition between the CDU, the SPD and the Greens
  • The former communist region is last among Germany’s 16 states in GDP per capita with 28,880 euros, less than half the level of top-ranked Hamburg
  • Located between Berlin and Hanover, it has the oldest population of any German state with an average age of 47.9 years
  • Its two biggest cities are the capital Magdeburg and Halle, each with less than 240,000 residents. In total, the state has a population of 2.2 million
  • Historical highlights: birthplace of the Reformation and home to Bauhaus

The tension in Saxony-Anhalt reflects the unsettled state of German politics as the Merkel era draws to a close. The CDU-led conservatives are being pressed by the once-fringe Greens for the lead nationally. The AfD, which arose out of dissatisfaction with Merkel’s policies, has carved out a space, mainly in the East, while support for the Social Democrats -- traditionally the second-strongest force in Germany -- wanes after years as her junior partner.

Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

Merkel has been unpopular in the former communist East since the refugee crisis of 2015. Many people in the region, which is more rural and poorer than the West, continue to oppose the idea of a multicultural society.

Eastern Germany’s aversion to Merkel increased with her strict course during the coronavirus pandemic, including the controversial lockdown law, which mandated curbs including curfews in hard-hit areas. The AfD has used that to evoke images of communist-era autocracy. Its placards call for “resistance” in the fight for “freedom.”

While the pandemic has affected campaigning by restricting the size of rallies, other national figures are wading into the fray in Saxony-Anhalt.

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock -- Laschet’s main rival for the chancellorship -- spoke recently to 100 supporters in Magdeburg, the state capital. SPD’s candidate Olaf Scholz visited a synagogue in Halle, the site of a 2019 attack where a right-wing extremist shot two people dead.

Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

Laschet’s two-day campaign tour last week consisted largely of events without any direct contact with the general public, relying mainly on the press and social media to get the word out. In addition to the Bauhaus museum, he visited a Covid-19 ward at a Dessau hospital and toured a coal mine in the southern part of the state.

In his election pitch, he’s using the AfD’s rise to bring mainstream voters to the CDU and thwart a victory by the right-wing populists.

“Anyone who wants to ensure that we have clear democratic structures in Saxony-Anhalt must vote for Reiner Haseloff so that the CDU is the strongest force and the AfD is where it belongs, namely in opposition,” Laschet told Deutschlandfunk radio on Tuesday. “What happens on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt should be of concern to all those who support democracy.”

Merkel Ally Battles Far-Right Surge in Sunday Vote in Saxony

The appeal appears to be working. In the latest voter surveys, the CDU has opened up a lead of as much as six points over the AfD. While that would give Laschet a lift, doubts still surround his candidacy.

On the campaign trail in Dessau, Haseloff was questioned about his public support for Soeder and offered a half-hearted endorsement of the CDU chief.

“I never had anything against Laschet,” Haseloff told reporters ahead of his arrival. “With Armin, we now have a very respectable candidate who people here will be happy to see.”

But at that event, it was just one autograph-seeking old woman.

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