Far-right seeks control of German town favoured by Hollywood

Görlitz (Germany) (AFP) –


The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is battling to win the mayor's office in a bellwether election on Sunday at a town in the former East Germany whose medieval charms have attracted top Hollywood directors.

The contest for Goerlitz's city hall is a litmus test for three upcoming state elections, with the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile right-left coalition potentially on the line.

The AfD made strong gains in the economically struggling region in May's European elections and hopes to beat Merkel's CDU party in an upcoming regional ballot.

Goerlitz is located on the Polish border and has served as a location for films such as "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Inglourious Basterds", "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Reader" but many of its young citizens have left due to a lack of job opportunities.

The vote in the city of 55,000 people is a run-off between the AfD's Sebastian Wippel, 36, an ex-policeman, and the CDU's Octavian Ursu, 51, a Romanian-born classical musician.

Wippel won the first round three weeks ago with 36.4 percent against Ursu's 30.3 percent.

However, Ursu now has the support of the two smaller parties that are out of the race -- one of them the Greens, who came third with 27.9 percent last time.

The CDU's Saxony state premier, Michael Kretschmer, who hails from Goerlitz, has urged voters to reject the AfD, arguing that "many people underestimate how radical the party is".

The anti-immigration, anti-Muslim AfD party -- already represented in Germany's parliament and all 16 regional assemblies -- is polling as the strongest party in Saxony as well as Brandenburg state.

Both of those regions -- once part of walled-in communist East Germany -- will go to the polls on September 1, followed by another eastern state, Thuringia, on October 27.

- 'Hate and hostility' -

Goerlitz, a major trading town in the Middle Ages, was spared damage by Allied bombing during World War II, preserving its cobblestone lanes and Baroque architecture.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost 30 years ago, hundreds of millions of euros in German and EU funds have been poured into renovating the pretty old town on the Neisse river.

Despite its expensive facelift, Goerlitz long struggled to attract tenants for its renovated buildings, where many shops have "for sale" signs in the windows.

Leading filmmakers and authors have now called on the people of "Goerliwood" -- as the town is also known in Germany -- to shun political extremists or risk isolation by the arts community and tourists.

"Don't give in to hate and hostility, conflict and exclusion," reads the petition signed by actor Daniel Bruehl ("Goodbye Lenin") and British director Stephen Daldry.

Wippel told AFP last week that he was not taking the petition against him very seriously, calling it a hollow gesture "by people who don't live in Goerlitz".

Franziska Schubert of the Greens voiced hopes that the AfD candidate would be defeated, saying that "in the first round of voting, 64 percent did not vote for him".