The eastern German state of Thuringia goes to the polls on Sunday with the socialist Left party in a tight race with conservatives and the far-right. The result could look bad for Angela Merkel as her term ends.
Sunday will see another state election whose results will be pored over by pundits for signs about the future of German politics. The eastern German state of Thuringia is electing a new parliament, with the latest polls showing the socialist Left party (on 26% - 29%) holding onto a narrow lead over both the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The two parties in Angela Merkel's coalition government, the CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD), got away with the proverbial black eye in last month's elections in eastern Germany: in Saxony and Brandenburg. They maintained their status as the biggest parties (the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg), but had to watch the AfD come a close second by stealing a significant chunk of their voters.
Thuringia is another test of whether Germany's political center can hold, especially for the CDU's new leader and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. A bad showing for the CDU would be worse for her than for the last-term chancellor, according to Torsten Oppelland, political scientist at Jena University, because AKK is the one most likely to lead the CDU into the next election.
And the Social Democrats, still hovering at just 15% in national polls, will also be nervous. "For the SPD it means that the pressure of expectation on the leadership, which is currently being elected, will get even greater, because members will hope they can turn the trend around," Oppellend told DW.
A stable coalition?
But while Thuringia presents a similar challenge for the CDU and the SPD, the circumstances in the state are very different to Saxony and Brandenburg. It is the only state in Germany where the socialist Left party runs the government, through State Premier Bodo Ramelow, with the SPD and the Greens making up the rest of his coalition.
Ramelow, who has remained relatively popular during his five-year tenure, is himself an anomaly. Born in West Germany, he is one of the few observing Christians in his party — and in eastern Germany generally: a 2012 survey found it the most atheist spot on Earth, with a godless population of some 52%.
So the secret of his coalition's stability must lie elsewhere. "We have shown that you can govern calmly and in a relaxed way with three parties," he told DW's Anja Koch. "Five years ago that was still considered unthinkable in Germany." He added that he hoped this would send a signal to the national government in Berlin, where a left-wing coalition including the Left party has often been mooted, but has never been tried. That might be wishful thinking: current polls suggest there may be no majority for any viable coalition in Thuringia.
The east: Still socialist?
Thuringia is odd in other ways. The campaign run by the center-right CDU suggests that Thuringia's heart still has a statist beat, even 30 years after the end of communism: the CDU aims to unseat the socialist Left by promising more primary schools and free pre-school child care.
Thuringia has suffered a similar fate to the rest of eastern Germany in the last three decades. Rural populations have bled out, and many remote communities have become cut off and poor.
Thuringia as a whole, however, has done fairly well economically. Official statistics show unemployment has dropped from 11.4% in 2009 to 5.5% last year — but that, says Ramelow, is mainly down to "a few lighthouses, where economic development is working better: Jena, Erfurt, Weimar, Ilmenau." All four are university towns, and the first three are tourist destinations, where three of Germany's most celebrated geniuses — Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — spent significant time.
But today's Thuringians have more prosaic worries. "Mobility is a key issue," says Ramelow. "A lot of people who live in villages ask themselves, 'How am I supposed to get from the village to the nearest town?' One of the issues that has been neglected in Germany is the strengthening of the rail network and the trains."
The far-right of the far-right
The Thuringia election is also notable because one of its key figures is possibly the most polemic politician currently on the German political landscape: Björn Höcke, the AfD's leading candidate in Thuringia.
The retired school teacher is divisive even in his own party. Höcke has survived a couple of expulsion attempts, though latterly the leadership in Berlin has grown much less bold as Höcke has accumulated power as the leading figure in the so-called Wing: the most right-wing voices of the far-right party.
Höcke is the AfD figure least shy of using what can only be described as old-fashioned Nazi rhetoric. At a party event in Saxony-Anhalt last summer, he declared, "Today, dear friends, the question is no longer hammer or anvil, today the question is sheep or wolf. And I dear friends, say here, we will decide on: wolf."
Several media outlets noticed that this seemed to be a pungent allusion to an article written by the Third Reich's Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, who said: "We come as enemies! Like the wolf in the herd of sheep, that is how we arrive!"
Being a history teacher, Höcke appears to have a particular interest in German history, and how it is remembered. He is perhaps most famous for calling for a "180-degree turn" in how Germany remembers its Nazi past. Statements like this, and his use of terms like "degenerate" and "total victory," have led academics such as Jena-based extremism researcher Axel Salheiser to describe Höcke's rhetoric as "very, very similar."
On Sunday, though, Höcke's language may yet prove a liability: even though a quarter of voters in the state support the AfD, a recent poll showed that only 8% would vote for him directly as state premier. And yet, 17% of Thuringians still consider refugees and migration as the most urgent issue. As in other eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, the CDU and SPD have plenty to fear from the AfD.