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Big gains expected for far-right in German regional elections

John MacDougall, AFP | A man waves a giant German flag as others hold balloons during an election rally of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Koenigs Wusterhausen, eastern Germany on August 30, 2019.

Two states in eastern Germany are holding elections on Sunday that could bring big gains for a far-right party and further destabilize Chancellor Angela Merkel’s national government.

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Voters in Saxony, a region of around 4.1 million people bordering Poland and the Czech Republic, and neighboring Brandenburg, which has 2.5 million inhabitants and surrounds Berlin, are electing new state legislatures.

The formerly communist east has become a stronghold for the 6-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which is hoping for a possible first-place finish in at least one state. Saxony has been governed since German reunification in 1990 by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Brandenburg by the center-left Social Democrats, its junior partners in the national government.

Both are expected to lose ground, while the opposition Greens, which have traditionally struggled in the east, but have surged in national polls over recent months, are also looking to improve their score significantly.

That could be awkward for the national government’s future. The Social Democrats, mired in a long-running national poll slump, are currently in a long-drawn-out process of choosing new leadership.

A very weak performance Sunday and in a third eastern state election, Thuringia, on October 27, could strengthen the hand of members who want to walk out of the fractious national coalition.

More immediately, forming new state governments in Saxony and Brandenburg could be tricky, since mainstream parties have vowed not to form coalitions with AfD. Polls put the party’s support in Saxony at more than double its 9.7% score in 2014, and its support in Brandenburg well above the 12.2% it won then.

'Right-wing extremism'

“AfD must not be given responsibility for this state,” Saxony’s center-right governor, Michael Kretschmer, told ZDF television on Friday.

“This is a party that is sliding further and further into right-wing extremism.”

Saxony is currently governed by a coalition of Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats. In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats lead a coalition with the Left Party, which is further to their left.

Polls suggest that both coalitions will lose their majority, forcing them to bring in a third partner such as the Greens or consider alternatives such as a minority government   a rarity in Germany.

Saxony has long been a hotbed of far-right groups. It is not only a stronghold of AfD, but also the state where the anti-migration group PEGIDA  Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West   rose to prominence with weekly protests in Dresden that brought tens of thousands of supporters into the streets at the height of the 2015 migration crisis.

Following the killing of a German man by a Syrian asylum-seeker a year ago, the Saxon city of Chemnitz saw days of anti-foreigner riots by thousands of neo-Nazis and members of AfD.

AfD has tapped into disillusionment, particularly in rural areas, among people who feel left behind after nearly three decades of German unity. Promises of equal living standards did not always become reality, salaries in the east still lag behind those in the west and many young people have left to seek opportunities elsewhere.

In both states voting Sunday, the party has put up posters urging voters to “complete” the 1989 rebellion against communist rule and proclaiming that “the east is rising up.”

(AP)

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