Regional government elections in Germany Sunday, in which the anti-immigrant, nationalist far-right AfD party surged in support, are testimony to a widening rift between the country’s prosperous West and its struggling former Communist East, say analysts.
Thirty years after German reunification — and an investment by Berlin of more than 2 trillion euros in the east — the coming together of the country’s two halves has slowed.
The young and educated are fleeing westward and those left behind say they’re treated like second-class citizens. They compare their plight with the "generosity" they say has been shown by Berlin to the more than one million migrants who have settled in Germany since 2015.
On Sunday, in the states of Saxony and Brandenburg, the AfD capitalized on the widening divide, delivering what is being dubbed an “earthquake” blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shaky government coalition in Berlin.
Tapping into discontent in Saxony, the far-right anti-immigrant party saw an 18 percent increase in support and doubled its share of the vote in Brandenburg. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) lost votes in Saxony but still managed to top the poll there with 32 percent, ahead of the AfD's 27.5 percent. It wasn't the result Merkel wanted and she was down from the 40 percent that the CDU once regularly achieved in the state.
In Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel’s coalition partner, won with 26.2 percent, while the AfD took 23.5 percent.
But the SPD plunged dramatically to 7.7 percent in Saxony, a result that’s likely to be used by the party's left wing to campaign against prolonging past the end of this year the SPD’s participation in the coalition government in Berlin. The struggling center-left party is due to hold internal leadership elections next month as it agonizes about its slide in popularity.
Both main establishment parties breathed a sigh of relief that the AfD didn’t do even better — some forecasts suggested the populist could top the polls in both states, forcing them to have to enter into awkward regional coalitions with the AfD to form state governments.
The mainstream parties were saved from that and the CDU and SPD maintained Sunday that the results were much better than they had expected. “It is good the people of Brandenburg have said we do not want the far-right extremists of the AfD to win,” said Lars Klingbeil, the SPD secretary general. The regional CDU leader in Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, announced, “This is a great day for the state.”
Nonetheless, the outcome may hasten the breakup of Merkel’s national governing coalition. It adds pressure on the German chancellor to bring forward her earmarked retirement date from politics in 2021 and for her anointed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to take over sooner.
The CDU suffered its worst ever result in Saxony, and the SPD only just managed to hang on in Brandenburg, a state it has ruled since reunification.
AfD leaders celebrated their electoral surge. Alexander Gauland, party co-leader said, “We are satisfied in Brandenburg as well as in Saxony.” He said the party had “punished” Merkel. “Yes, we did not come first. There is still a piece missing and the work starts now.”
The AfD became the first far-right party to enter Germany's national parliament in almost 60 years when it took third place overall in federal elections in 2017. The party has had a difficult 12 months — it fared poorly in European parliamentary elections earlier this year, coming in fourth, and failed last year to pull off an electoral breakthrough in state polls in Bavaria in the west of the country.
But its performance Sunday is prompting alarm in Germany’s mainstream media. “These results have brutally demonstrated to political leaders that something is going awry in the country,” according to Ines Pohl, editor-in-chief of public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
“These are the best results in the party’s short history. Within just a few years, it [the AfD] has managed to rise from a small fringe party to the second-strongest political force in the state parliaments. Polls had predicted it could become the top party in Saxony; that did not come to pass, but there is no room for rejoicing in its close second-place finish,” she continued.
Mainstream leaders, she said, “must look and listen more closely to what drives voters into the arms of populists.”
In the former Communist east of the country, AfD supporters say the results highlight the widening divide between Germany’s two halves, and underline the growing discontent easterners feel with continuing depopulation and deindustrialization. Youth flight has seen nearly 2 million youngsters flee west since 1989. Thirty years ago Germany’s so-called “reunification chancellor,” Helmut Kohl, pledged to to turn the former Communist east into a “blooming landscape,” but restructuring has proven difficult.
Berlin has invested more than $2 trillion in the east since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Easterners have become wealthier as a result, but GDP per head in the five eastern states is only 82 percent of that in the west and unemployment is 4.8 percent higher.
Climate action by Germany’s central government has hit the east hard with polluting factories closed. The AfD campaigned in Brandenburg and Saxony against Merkel’s plans to shutter open-cast lignite mines in the region. Nearly 20,000 jobs depend on the mines.
Easterners — known as Ossies — complain they are underrepresented in the top echelons of German public life. Merkel, who was born in the east, is one of the few Ossies in the top political ranks of the country, and not one dean in Germany’s 81 universities is from the east.