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The far-right AfD may have come second in regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, but Germany's governing parties had been fearing even worse. Now, Berlin is searching for a strategy to deal with the new reality.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) just about managed to come out on top in regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg respectively.
But both parties, who form the governing coalition at national level, still took an electoral hit. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) came second in both states, a massive gain on results four years ago, but with a similar share of the vote as in the last national election in 2017.
Some polls had the far-right party in the lead in both states a few weeks ago, and political observers thought the result, while certainly not great for Angela Merkel's grand coalition, was still good enough to ensure that her administration was not about to collapse immediately.
The key was the SPD's very mixed results. While the Social Democrats slumped to just 7.7%, or fifth place, in Saxony, they still won the election in Brandenburg, all but assuring they could continue to govern there. A defeat to the AfD would have increased tension in the party, and potentially pushed it closer to walking out on Merkel's coalition and perhaps ending her 14-year tenure as chancellor.
On Monday, one of the SPD's deputy leaders, Ralf Stegner, seemed relieved. "I don't think it has an effect on the grand coalition on the federal level," he told DW. Whether or not that lasts, he added, depended much more on the policies the two parties hash out in the coming months.
But his was not the only SPD voice. To complicate the political situation, the SPD is currently in the middle of a leadership battle, with candidates from the party's various political wings in the running. One of the more left-wing candidates, Gesine Schwan, said on Monday morning that the national parties of both the CDU and the SPD had been no help in the regional elections.
"The successes came from the strength of the state parties," Schwan told the Rheinische Post. "The federal parties in the grand coalition are not creating any strong tail-wind, their profile is less clear than that of the state heads."
What now for the CDU and SPD?
CDU party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that the results were "difficult" for the party. But she emphasized that Saxony State Premier Michael Kretschmer "managed to make clear that there is — as opposed to the right-wing populists — a friendly, open, forward-looking face of Saxony."
Kretschmer himself was optimistic. "What is important is that the Saxony parliament is made up of a large majority of positive forces who are capable of forming a government that will move this state forward," he told DW. He said that his party had "succeeded in generating trust again."
That reaction reflected the general line in Germany's center-right: that while the government was still stable enough for now, it could not simply maintain its business as usual. "Of course we can't go back to our daily agenda now, the AfD's result is much too high," said Markus Söder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister-party, the CSU. "That's why we appeal to the SPD, despite their internal-party clarification processes, it's time to work constructively on climate and budget policy."
Indeed, the immediate reaction from the grand coalition was to forge ahead with new initiatives: the leaders of the CDU, CSU, and SPD are meeting Monday evening to discuss their new climate protection policies, ahead of a special "climate cabinet" meeting on September 20.
At the same time, the SPD is pressing on with its plans to introduce an unconditional "basic pension," one of its key initiatives in the current government, but which has so far been blocked by the CDU. "We will apply pressure now," the party's General Secretary Lars Klingbeil announced on Monday. "Nothing helps people more than concrete political decisions."
AfD: You need to talk to us now
For its part, the AfD claimed that its new successes meant that it was now an unavoidable presence in the east, and that, sooner or later, there would be cracks in the CDU's resolve not to form a coalition with it.
On Monday morning, AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland admitted that the grand coalition would probably stay together for now, "because for the two big parties it would be difficult to endure a national election." But he insisted that a coalition with the CDU was possible. "Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is trying desperately to deny the validity of the middle-class majority," he told DW. He added that a coalition with the CDU "depends on the CDU, but there's no question of rushing."
Sitting alongside him at the morning's press conference was Andreas Kalbitz, the party's lead candidate in Brandenburg, whose close connection to neo-Nazi groups was exposed shortly before the election.
Kalbitz compared the AfD to Italy's far-right Lega party, which joined the Italian government in 2018, and whose leader Matteo Salvini is still interior minister. "That's the direction we're going in," said Kalbitz.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, however, was adamant that allying with the AfD would not be necessary. Asked whether her party could stick to its line on ruling out an alliance with the AfD, she said, "Yes, we can."
SPD interim co-leader Manuela Schwesig also dismissed any suggestion that the AfD might now be considered fit for government. She said that while its voters weren't far-right extremists, there were extremists among their officials.
Green party leader Robert Habeck said that he is expecting the CDU to approach the party for talks about forming a governing coalition in Saxony.
For talks to produce results, Habeck said that the CDU would have to learn some lessons from the election in Saxony.
Habeck also said that the CDU did not have "its own power" in Saxony and that voters only chose them to avoid voting for the AfD.
In a DW interview, Green party parliamentarian Franziska Brantner said that other parties are obliged to show AfD voters that "democracy can and will work for them." Brantner added that the election results are a sign that new governing coalitions can be formed "beyond the AfD."
Dietmar Bartsch, the joint leader of the Left parliamentary party said earning little more than 10% of the vote in Saxony and Brandenburg was a "disaster."
Bartsch said it was "obvious" that the Left was no longer regarded as the party of choice to represent the interests of people in former East Germany.