Inside Story

The significance of 1 September

A closely watched election campaign unfolds in an East German state

Klaus Neumann 2 September 2019 4842 words

Michael Kretschmer, Christian Democrat premier of Saxony, during a campaign event in Freital last month. Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

The results of Germany’s national election in September 2017 might have been widely anticipated, but they nevertheless generated shockwaves. The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who had governed together since 2013, lost a fifth of their combined support. With just 20.5 per cent, the Social Democrats recorded their worst result since the Federal Republic had been founded. The biggest winner was the populist far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, which polled 12.6 per cent.

Although the AfD attracted only one in eight German electors, it won 27 per cent of votes in the East German state of Saxony, narrowly beating the Christian Democrats’ 26.9 per cent. This remarkable result brought Saxony’s next state election, still two years away, into sharp focus.

Some commentators portrayed the state election — which was eventually scheduled for 1 September this year — as potentially the most significant state-level vote since reunification; others called it a Schicksalswahl, an election that would determine Germany’s fate. A Bundestag in which a far-right newcomer had become the largest opposition party was one thing; a state parliament in which the AfD was the dominant party would be quite another. Would the AfD once more outperform the established parties? Might it even be able to form government? Or would Saxony become ungovernable?

The rise of the AfD, which has been around for just six years but is represented in the national Bundestag and all sixteen state parliaments, is widely interpreted as the most obvious sign of a Rechtsruck, a lurch to the right, in German society. As I’ll explain, I don’t subscribe to that view. What’s beyond doubt, however, is that the AfD has undergone its own Rechtsruck. From a party of Eurosceptics with a neoliberal agenda, it has morphed into a far-right party whose leaders promote an aggressive nationalism, deny that humans are responsible for climate change, and bitterly oppose Germany’s accommodating of significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.

The radicalisation of the AfD’s program didn’t scare off voters; on the contrary, it attracted a higher percentage of the vote. But the party’s support has been unevenly distributed. In the 2017 federal election, for example, it scored well below 10 per cent in the four northwest German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Bremen and Hamburg. In Saxony, where it performed best, the results were also mixed: in Leipzig 2, one of two electorates in Saxony’s largest city, it came only third, behind the left-wing Die Linke, which topped the vote, and the Christian Democrats. At the other end of the spectrum, in Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, in Saxony’s southeast, the AfD’s candidate scored 37.4 per cent, the party’s best individual result nationally.

Most of Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge’s 245,000 inhabitants live in small towns, the largest of which are Pirna, the shire’s administrative centre, and Freital. Both have populations of just below 40,000 and are within easy reach of Dresden. But the shire also includes small villages, some of which can’t easily be reached by public transport. It extends over 1654 square kilometres, approximately the combined total size of the city-states of Hamburg and Berlin.

Like other parts of the former German Democratic Republic, the southeast of Saxony was hit hard by the massive changes to the economy after 1989. The industrial bases of towns like Freital, Pirna, Sebnitz and Heidenau mostly disappeared, leaving industries that employ only a fraction of the workforce. Unemployment skyrocketed and the population declined, with young people — and young women, in particular — leaving for West Germany. In 2002 and 2013, Pirna and other communities along the Elbe and its tributaries were also hit hard by floods.

In economic terms, though, the shire has recovered well. Saxony’s unemployment rate is 5.4 per cent — lower, for example, than in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, or in the city-state of Hamburg. With 4.2 per cent, the shire of Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge has the lowest unemployment rate in all of Saxony.

For many communities here, the growth of tourism has been a key ingredient of economic recovery. Both Saxon Switzerland — the mountains along the Elbe between Pirna and the Czech border — and the Ore Mountains are a hiker’s paradise, and the latter are also a popular skiing destination. The shire has also benefited from the fact that nearby Dresden — less than a half-hour’s train ride away from some population centres — has been booming.

Most of the tourists are Germans, with another significant proportion from the neighbouring Czech Republic. But international tourism is playing its part. The tourism industry has also been responsible for labour migration; hotels and restaurants regularly fill vacancies by recruiting staff from across the Czech–German border.

To try to understand the local mood and get a sense of how the 1 September election would unfold in this part of the state, I visited Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge frequently over the months leading up to Sunday’s vote, speaking to local members of parliament, mayors and other local politicians and representatives of civil-society organisations. By mid August, while the forthcoming state elections were featuring prominently in the national media, the campaign still didn’t seem to be in full swing in the shire. Was this perhaps evidence of a political culture that was different from the one I had grown up with in West Germany?

Sunday 18 August 2019

With only a fortnight of campaigning still to go, the local newspaper, the Sächsische Zeitung, is dominated by matters other than the election. No large election rallies are scheduled in Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, and only one public forum involving the main candidates in each of the four state electorates that cover the shire. This series of forums has been organised by the Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung, the state body responsible for civic education. On 28 June, admittedly very early in the campaign, only sixty people had turned up for the forum in state electorate #49, which covers the town of Dippoldiswalde and the Eastern Ore Mountains.

Outside Pirna and Freital, comparatively few election posters are on display. Almost all of the ones that show local candidates or party leaders depict the faces of men, simply because most candidates in Saxony, and most of the parties’ state leaders, are men. Of the twenty-four candidates representing the six parties predicted to get over the 5 per cent threshold in the shire’s four state electorates — Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens, Die Linke, Free Democrats and AfD — only nine are women. Only the Greens and Die Linke are led by a team of one man and one woman; the leaders of the other four parties are men.

In Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, in particular, politics is men’s business. The Pirna town council, for example, has twenty-seven members, just three of whom are women. Only one of the nineteen towns in Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge has a female mayor. Surely the peculiar politics in the shire have something to do with the fact that women play only a marginal role.

The politician whose image is most conspicuous in public spaces is forty-four-year-old Michael Kretschmer, the state premier. From 2002 until 2017, he was a member of the Bundestag; from 2009 until 2017 he also served as deputy leader of the Christian Democrats in federal parliament. The support he enjoyed in 2013 in the electorate of Görlitz, in Saxony’s east — 49.6 per cent of the primary vote, 30 per cent more than the runner-up from Die Linke — seemed rock-solid. But in 2017 he narrowly lost his seat to an AfD candidate. Less than a month later, Saxony’s premier, Stanislaw Tillich, resigned to make way for him. Since then, he has tried hard to convince people in Saxony that he is willing to listen, and that a vote for the AfD is not an effective means of protest.

On the question of how to deal with the AfD, Saxony’s Christian Democrats are divided. A minority of state MPs wouldn’t be opposed to forming a minority government that is tolerated by the far-right party. Kretschmer has ruled out such an option. But the matter is complicated. The vote compass developed by the Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung allows voters not just to see how closely their own views align with those of each political party but also to compare the positions held by the parties. According to the compass, the Christian Democrats and the AfD have a lot in common (about as much as, for example, the Social Democrats have in common with the Greens). The common ground between the Christian Democrats and their current state and national coalition partner, the Social Democrats, is far smaller.

Kretschmer and his supporters are also ruling out a coalition with Die Linke. They are willing to contemplate a deal with the Greens (which may be the only option left to them), but it is hard to see how they could agree on the phasing out of coalmining, for example, or the detention of “deportable” asylum seekers. The vote compass also detects very few synergies between Christian Democrats and Greens (as few as between the Social Democrats and the AfD), a problem both Kretschmer and the leaders of the Greens have acknowledged.

Among the parties that have put up posters across the shire is the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or NPD. Back in 2004, the NPD won 9.2 per cent of the statewide vote — by far the party’s best result in any state election since 1990. It was represented in Saxony’s parliament until 2013, when it missed the 5 per cent threshold by only 0.1 per cent. The NPD has had a strong presence in the shire, but at the local elections in May it performed well only where the AfD did not run candidates.

The AfD and NPD are not the only parties whose slogans are designed to blame foreigners, including refugees, for society’s ills. The Free Democrats are just more subtle. As one of their posters reads, dog whistle–style: “Drogen, Clans, Extremismus — Hier nicht!” (Drugs, clans, extremism — not here!)

Monday 19 August 2019

The election forum for state electorate #48 is held in a small performance space in Freital. About 150 people have come to listen to six local candidates, among them the sitting member and prominent Christian Democrat, Roland Wöller, interior minister in the state government.

Some of the candidates seem poorly prepared. The Social Democrats’ Daniela Forberg, for example, seems sometimes to be hastily consulting her party’s election program when she responds to questions. Others resort to oversimplifications and misrepresentations in the expectation that they won’t be held to account. Discussing the controversial issue of whether police officers should be identifiable, Wöller conveys the impression that the Greens and Die Linke would like the police to sport name badges, when all they have suggested is that police officers should be identifiable by means of a number that can be cited if a complaint is lodged.

Germany’s asylum policies elicit the strongest response from the audience. Should asylum seekers whose protection claims are unsuccessful be immediately deported, the moderator wants to know. Neither Wöller nor Forberg, whose parties have been responsible for asylum seeker policy at the national level, point out that it would be against longstanding government policy to deport people to war zones. Only Die Linke’s candidate does justice to the complexity of the issue.

The most uncomfortable question comes towards the end, from a man who introduces himself as a local businessman. He says that when crossing a nearby square he noticed a man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with these words: “Schwarz ist die Nacht, in der wir euch kriegen / Weiß sind die Männer, die für Deutschland siegen / Rot ist das Blut auf dem Asphalt” (Black is the night when we’ll get you / White are the men who are victorious for Germany / Red is the blood on the road). These are the lyrics of a song, “Schwarz ist die Nacht,” recorded by Frontalkraft, an East German neo-Nazi rock band. The questioner didn’t say anything to the man with the t-shirt because he was not confident that other people nearby would support him if the situation got ugly. What would you do, he asks the six panellists. And “should I perhaps not encourage my non-German employees to learn German, lest they then be able to read such texts?”

The answers are evasive and unsatisfactory. None of the panellists wants to say that the presence of neo-Nazis is a major problem, and none wants to admit that neo-Nazi symbols, statements and attitudes are tolerated, if not condoned, by more than a few isolated (and, as one candidate ventured, “sick”) individuals.

Freital has had an image problem at least since 2015, when it became the scene of militant protests against a former hotel housing asylum seekers at the height of the “refugee crisis.” The town has also been associated with the Gruppe Freital, a far-right terrorist group formed in that year. Key members of the group were arrested in 2016, and two years later eight of them were convicted and given long prison sentences.

At the height of the protests against asylum seekers, Freital was also the scene of counter-protests — often carried out by people from Leipzig and Dresden, though, if not from places further afield. Many local citizens claimed that they were caught in the middle. Freital’s image as a hotbed of neo-Nazis has meant that journalists from West Germany regularly visit the town; too often the reports they file reinforce its image but do little to understand its problems. But the image, of course, is not without foundation.

Unlike in Pirna, whose mayor has gone out of his way to promote an image of a town that welcomes strangers and encourages asylum seeker support groups and anti-fascist initiatives, Freital’s local administration claims that the town has been victimised and its people misrepresented. But in Pirna, as in Freital, the AfD and politicians sympathising with its positions have enjoyed strong support at the ballot box. The Pirna mayor’s decision to take a stance might have had an impact on what can be said in public, but so far it doesn’t seem to have swayed people’s opinions.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Public broadcaster MDR has published the results of a survey of which issues will be most decisive in influencing the voting decisions of electors in Saxony. It was no surprise that 24 per cent nominated “climate change and the protection of the environment.” Thanks to Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future, reinforced by last year’s exceptionally hot and dry European summer, climate change has been the dominant issue in public debate in Germany this year. One result is the meteoric rise of the Greens, who outpolled the Social Democrats in the recent European elections, with some observers speculating that Robert Habeck, the charismatic co-leader of the Greens, rather than the leader of the Christian Democrats, might succeed Merkel as chancellor after the next national elections.

It is less obvious why another 24 per cent of surveyed voters nominated “refugees, immigration, asylum policy.” For a start, most issues to do with migration are federal rather than state matters. Also, this year has seen a further decline in the number of asylum seekers reaching Germany. In the first seven months of 2019, according to the latest statistics, Germany received 86,300 new applications for asylum — a far cry from 2015 and 2016, when the combined total was more than 1.1 million new applications. The shire currently accommodates 574 people with a pending asylum application, as well as 569 whose application has been rejected, and 807 refugees who have been granted protection. Only one in thirty-eight residents of the shire doesn’t hold a German passport, making Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge one of the shires with the lowest percentage of foreigners in the country.

At lunchtime, I come across a comparatively rare sight: a party campaigning in Pirna’s pedestrian mall. On a stall drumming up support for the Greens are one of the party’s local politicians and five members from Mönchengladbach, a city in the Rhineland, more than 600 kilometres west of here. They have come to Pirna and Freital for five days to support fellow Greens. They report that the experience of engaging with prospective voters is very different from back home. “We don’t normally get shouted at when campaigning,” I’m told. “People tend to be more civil back home.” No wonder then that none of the parties is doorknocking voters here.

Greens membership is low here compared with West Germany, and anybody offering to put leaflets in letterboxes or let themselves be abused in the local mall would be welcome. On the other hand, West German advice, help and attention comes with the burden of a twenty-nine-year post-reunification relationship in which West Germans knew what was best and took some pleasure in pointing out how ignorant, reactionary and behind the times their brothers and sisters in “Dunkeldeutschland,” or Dark Germany, were.

Tonight, about 200 people have come to listen to the six local candidates in state electorate #50, which includes Pirna, at a Landeszentrale-hosted forum. But the best-known local candidate, at least among people outside Pirna, has not been invited because her party isn’t likely to win more than 5 per cent of the vote. Frauke Petry won electorate #158, Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, in 2017 for the AfD; at the time, she was her party’s co-leader. Immediately after the election, she quit the AfD to set up the Blue Party. The AfD had moved too far to the right, she said. The Blue Party has had no electoral success so far, and Petry has not been able to persuade more than a handful of federal and state parliamentarians to leave the AfD and join her.

Petry’s nemesis was Jan Zwerg, the chairman of her local branch. He is now the general secretary of the AfD in Saxony, and the AfD’s candidate in state electorate #50. Zwerg is associated with the AfD’s right-wing faction, the so-called Flügel (wing), whose most prominent figure is Björn Höcke. Outside Germany, Höcke is perhaps best known for calling the Berlin Holocaust memorial a “Denkmal der Schande” (monument of shame). The Flügel has been investigated by Germany’s federal intelligence agency for advocating positions that violate Germany’s constitution. Saxony is a Flügel stronghold.

The standard of the debate is not high, although an improvement on yesterday’s in Freital. The questions from the audience appear designed to confirm divisions rather than elicit new information. Given the male-only panel, it seems fitting that all questions come from men. As in Freital, men also make up the majority of the audience, most of whom are over sixty.

Both here and in Freital, the audience learns little about the candidates themselves. Tonight, though, there are three exceptions. Zwerg exudes self-confidence bordering on arrogance, and on one occasion can’t be bothered answering a question put to him by the moderator. The Greens candidate is plainly out of his depth; when asked about the AfD’s proposal to build new nuclear power stations in Saxony, he obviously doesn’t know what to say.

The third exception is the sitting member, thirty-five-year-old Oliver Wehner of the Christian Democrats. When asked with whom he would consider forming a coalition after the elections, he rules out the AfD. Imagining a situation in which he and Zwerg have to negotiate the government’s policy, he explains: “And then he [Zwerg] says, for him it is important that Germans and foreigners are treated differently when they go to see a doctor. I would have an issue with that. And then, if Herr Zwerg becomes interior minister in Saxony, I might read in the paper that people have been shot at the border, then I would have my second problem.”

At this point, Wehner can’t continue because many in the audience protest vociferously. Perhaps trying to defuse the situation, the moderator says he can “understand” that people are annoyed by what Wehner has said.

Wehner’s stance is unusual. It might have something to do with the fact that he was once responsible for the former hardware store used to accommodate asylum seekers in Heidenau in August 2015, which became the focal point of violent protests. But it also makes sense for him to rule out collaborating with Zwerg from a purely strategic point of view: voters who agree with the AfD won’t vote for the Christian Democrats just because they claim they can understand people’s frustration and anger, even if it is directed against asylum seekers. Prospective Greens voters, on the other hand, might be persuaded by conservative politicians who distance themselves from the far right.

In Pirna and in Freital, politicians of all persuasions have bemoaned the fact that society has been divided. All have expressed the hope that relationships can be mended. It is true that the question of how to respond to asylum seekers has divided families, workplaces and society at large. The yearning for unity is palpable, but it’s hard to see how expressing empathy for irrational fears will solve the issue.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

I return to Freital for what is probably the best-attended campaign event in the shire. The audience is younger, bigger and more diverse, and they have come to see Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens. Unlike any other German politician, he has genuine rock star appeal.

Rather than giving speeches, Habeck and Wolfram Günther, co-leader of Saxony’s Greens, engage with the audience by responding to questions. Most are critical of the Greens’ policies, but Habeck and Günther take their time in answering them and don’t shy away from issues that seem overly complex. The audience — including those who would probably never vote for the Greens — show their appreciation by being patient and respectful. Here it seems possible to have a conversation that does more than buttress pre-existing views.

Habeck stresses his belief that it is essential to debate issues with one another. Here again, West Germans are at an advantage. Broadly speaking, Saxony’s postwar political culture (including civic education) was first shaped by the communists, whose hegemony remained undisputed until 1989, and then by the Christian Democrats, whose hegemony was not challenged until 2017. There was little room for debate. West Germans like Habeck, who were already adults when the Berlin Wall fell, also lived through two periods in the 1970s and 1980s in which society was bitterly divided: first over the use of nuclear energy and then over the stationing of American cruise missiles. For East Germans, on the other hand, the controversy over Germany’s response to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is the first that prompted everyone to take sides. But the schism — within families, communities and workplaces — hasn’t been overcome by a discussion engaging both sides of the divide.

Habeck is asked about possible coalitions after the elections. He recounts his involvement in three sets of negotiations: twice in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein in the north of Germany, and once at the federal level after the 2017 election. The latter talks (between Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens) ended when the leader of the Free Democrats walked out. According to Habeck, these negotiations failed because there was no genuine willingness to be innovative and find common ground. Habeck was also involved in negotiating the current coalition between the same three parties in Schleswig-Holstein, and has only good things to say about his fellow negotiators. He would know, however, that deeply conservative Christian Democrats like Michael Kretschmer have very little in common with Christian Democrats like Schleswig-Holstein’s decidedly liberal premier Daniel Günther.

In a final statement, Habeck comments on the AfD without mentioning it by name. He refers to Brexit as a salutary lesson about the viability of populist positions. He then makes the only reference I have heard during the campaign to the fact that the election in Saxony takes place exactly eighty years after Germany’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of the second world war, imploring the audience “not to vote for a party that has an unbroken relationship to fascism.”

Sunday 1 September 2019

It’s ten days later now, and the results are in. The most extreme scenarios — that the AfD would come first; that Michael Kretschmer’s position would be weakened to the extent that he would be replaced by a Christian Democrat willing to make a deal with the AfD; that Saxony would become ungovernable; or that the Social Democrats would lose so badly that they would leave the coalition in Berlin — have not come to pass. In Saxony, the Social Democrats fared less well than ever before in a state election in the Federal Republic; but the result in today’s other state election, in the East German state of Brandenburg, was much better for the Social Democrats, which remains the strongest party there and is likely to lead the next coalition government (presumably with the Greens and Die Linke).

In Saxony, the Christian Democrats won 32.1 per cent of the vote and the AfD came second with 27.5 per cent. They were followed by Die Linke with 10.4 per cent, the Greens with 8.6 per cent and the Social Democrats with 7.7 per cent. The Free Democrats failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold and will not be represented in the next state parliament. The most likely outcome will be a coalition between Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens.

In Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, the Christian Democrats retained two of the four electorates. In both cases, they were probably helped by the strong showing of two independents. Oliver Wehner, the Christian Democrat who tried to tell a Pirna audience why it would be unconscionable for him to collaborate with the AfD, lost his seat. Frauke Petry scored a paltry 805 votes.

The results are noteworthy for several reasons. First, the number of people who voted was significantly higher than at the 2014 election, with the AfD as the main beneficiary. Second, both in Brandenburg and in Saxony, some people seemed to have voted strategically. Given the real prospect that the AfD would become the strongest party, a sizeable number of followers of the other parties probably voted for the party that had the best chance of beating the AfD: in Saxony, this strategic voting strengthened the Christian Democrats; in Brandenburg the Social Democrats were the beneficiaries.

Third, immigration was the key issue for 34 per cent of AfD voters but for only 2 per cent of those who voted for Social Democrats or Christian Democrats. Fourth, the main losers weren’t the Social Democrats but Die Linke, which was once the undisputed second-largest political force in the state, and is now just one of three minor parties. And, finally, about a third of electors voted out of a sense of disappointment and two-thirds from conviction. For AfD voters, though, disappointment was the more important factor.

No doubt talk about a Rechtsruck, a lurching to the right, will intensify over the next few days. It is true that the AfD trebled its vote in Saxony. It is also true that more than a quarter of electors cast their vote for a party that advocates extremist positions and whose most significant faction, the Flügel, is under observation by the federal intelligence agency.

But let’s put things into perspective. The rise of the AfD has also prompted the rise of a powerful counter-movement. It has politicised people who consider themselves liberals or even conservatives, particularly in West Germany. It has prompted numerous innovative civil-society initiatives to strengthen democracy. It has contributed to the electoral successes of the Greens. I would even argue that the much-acclaimed Willkommenskultur, the culture of welcoming refugees in 2015, was itself also already a reaction against the xenophobia advocated by the AfD and the Pegida movement.

It’s also important to remember that Germany has moved to the left politically over the past thirty years, becoming a more tolerant society whose majority has embraced the fact that this is a country of immigration. In the early 1990s, during a previous “refugee crisis,” when hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the former Yugoslavia sought refuge in Germany, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Free Democrats and respectable media outlets such as Der Spiegel fanned fears of migrants and advocated positions that today would not be acceptable outside the AfD.

The Rechtsruck thesis also suggests that those who now vote for the AfD changed their views in recent years. Numerous surveys show this not to have been the case. Sentiments, attitudes and opinions have barely changed; what has changed dramatically is the range of views that can acceptably be voiced publicly (although “publicly” often means within the echo chambers provided by Facebook and other social media). That, of course, is a cause for concern. But the experience of the past four years suggests that German democracy, by and large — in the West more so than in the East — is remarkably resilient. It’s important to reflect on the events of 1 September 1939 and on its causes — but not because the past is about to return. •