With a stagnant economy and fears over the refugee crisis, mainstream parties in this eastern German state are losing voters in the lead-up to Sunday's polls. DW’s Elizabeth Schumacher reports from Magdeburg.
It is clear that the city of Magdeburg, the capital of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, has seen grander days. What's left of the pre-war Baroque buildings are squished between GDR-era concrete blocks, many of them boarded up, covered with graffiti. While much of the rest of Germany has sailed relatively smoothly through the financial crisis, even seeing their economies grow, this state in the former East saw its finances remain stagnant in 2015.
It's here, along with the western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, that regional elections on Sunday will provide a litmus test for the 2017 federal election, and where it will be determined whether voters will make the two main parties - coalition partners Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) - pay for their increasingly unpopular policy towards immigration. Indeed, Merkel's open-door stance has most likely allowed those further on the right to encroach on the support of the traditional center-left and center-right across the country, but it's especially apparent in the east.
The numbers in Saxony-Anhalt belie a deeply divided electorate that feels strongly about what they want - even if what they want is nothing any party is offering. The CDU has ruled the state, now in coalition with the SPD, since 2002. They look likely to keep the biggest percentage of votes, but at 31%, according to the latest poll from public broadcaster ARD, their support has been sinking for weeks, down from a high of 35% in December.
The CDU was, however, relatively absent from the streets of Magdeburg, compared to other parties. Far fewer billboards on the city squares, no one on corners handing out flyers, as with the SPD, Left, and Green parties. It appeared that despite all the talk swirling around the refugee crisis, and Merkel's handling of it, the CDU was confident their numbers would keep them in power.
What's more on the minds of voters is how far the SPD has declined, down to 15% from its high of 21% last summer. The SPD is fighting for survival in Saxony-Anhalt with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has skyrocketed to 19% support. Once a euroskeptic, financially-focused protest party, the AfD has seen its popularity drastically increase after ousting former leader Bernd Lucke over the summer and changing course to more anti-migrant, nationalistic rhetoric.
In Magdeburg, not one, but many of the AfD's advertisements have been defaced. Graffitied with slogans like "Don't be racist!" and splattered with paint, it was clear how unhappy some citizens of Saxony-Anhalt were with the increasingly strong association in the public consciousness between the former East and the right-wing of German politics.
Despite anger at the rise of the right-wing, the AfD looks likely to take several seats in Saxony-Anhalt's parliament
Yet with over 1 million refugees entering Germany last year, and an upswing in the number of xenophobic attacks against refugees or planned refugee homes across the country, something in the migrant-centered rhetoric of the right has appealed to ever-higher number of Saxony-Anhalt voters.
Refugees, refugees, refugees
"The refugee crisis was invented by the media," said Steffen, a committed non-voter living in the village of Stassfurt, outside of Magdeburg, with his wife Susi and two children. The couple, along with two other friends, sat down with DW to discuss the upcoming elections. After the talk, all four could agree on one thing: by focusing on the migrant crisis, mainstream politics has continued to ignore what really matters in the lives of voters, capitalizing on a trendy topic that doesn't actually affect daily life in order to gain power.
"The only ones you can't vote for are the AfD and NPD," said SPD-member Robert, referencing the ultra-nationalist National Democratic Party. "Not after what we had 70, 80 years ago, that's what frightens me a little," his wife Alex added. Talking with DW, they both remained determined to vote, but were still undecided.
"We live in a democracy, [the AfD] may have a voice, but it shouldn't have anything more," said Susi.
'The political establishment has failed us'
All four would have preferred a campaign focused on everyday, lived problems like education and unemployment.
"No party has a program interesting enough for me to compel me to vote. They all have the same program, to stay in power," Steffen told DW. "They all promise 'equal education for all, free kindergarten,' this that and the other, it never comes to pass because they don't work at the problems at the heart of the matter," Alex continued.
"We feel like the political establishment has failed us," Steffen finished.
Like her husband, Susi didn't feel strongly enough about any one party to go to the polls on Sunday. "I know the argument that not voting is like giving your ballot to the AfD or NPD," she said, "but I don't believe they'll make it. They're just a flash in the pan. Anyway, with our history, Germany can't afford it."
With NPD facing a nationwide ban and support hovering just around 1%, far below the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament, there is probably little cause for concern on that front. What happens next for the populist AfD is less certain.