As the populists move into the ideological vacuum left open by the less and less conservative CDU, the consequences can be felt across the east of Germany. DW's Elizabeth Schumacher reports from Magdeburg.
"Anything but the AfD," voters in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt tell DW over and over. In shops, on the street, in taxis and living rooms, with regional elections set for Sunday, a looming fear of the upstart right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) appeared directly proportional to the amount of ad space the party has purchased across the state.
Originally founded as a protest party for those fed up with the often overlapping policies of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-left coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), the AfD has seen its numbers soar ahead of Sunday's polls, causing consternation amongst Germany's traditional powerhouses of party politics.
In Saxony-Anhalt, it's the SPD that ought to be particularly concerned - now ruling in the capital Magdeburg in coalition with the CDU, their numbers are plummeting. The latest polls published by German public broadcaster ARD give the Social Democrats just 15% of the vote, way down from the 21% that got them into power in 2011 and too low to rule alone in coalition with the CDU again, as Merkel's party looks to remain about steady at 31% support.
With the same survey putting the AfD at 19%, it's abundantly clear where SPD voters - and the party's reputation as one of reform - have gone.
Most people willing to talk about the election, both in Magdeburg and the surrounding villages, were so adamantly against the AfD it made their reported popularity a bit mystifying. But in a state less diverse and less well off than many others in Germany, some voters said they could sympathize with the right-wing message.
Saxony-Anhalt consistently has one of the lowest GDPs in Germany and higher unemployment than most of the former East
"I'm not against letting in some refugees, but we should have stronger controls at the border. Make sure people really are refugees," said one young landscaper, hitting on the hot topic that is likely to turn the tide not only of this ballot, but also Germany's federal election next year.
"I like their program of support for families," one woman told DW, adding that she hadn't decided who to vote for yet, but that it was clear four years of CDU-SPD tandem hadn't brought much prosperity to Saxony-Anhalt.
The AfD has been strongly working both angles. One political sign, depicting a smiling blonde girl in pigtails, reads "children welcome" - a clear dig at the "refugees welcome" slogan used by pro-asylum activists. Other advertisements promise more kindergartens, better schools.
The populists' main candidate, André Poggenburg, likes to harp on these subjects – protecting "our community and the German people" against "mass immigration and multiculturalism." On the myriad of legal troubles he's facing with regards to his finances, he prefers to stay silent.
André Poggenburg has had multiple problems with the law over financial irregularities at his container construction firm
'They're making us look bad'
This new right-wing party, only founded in 2013, faces an uphill battle however, even if their goal of entering parliament in Saxony-Anhalt seems pretty well assured. Germany's history still lies heavy in the public consciousness, and the nationalistic focus of the AfD has many worried about repeating past mistakes.
"The AfD and PEGIDA, they're making us look bad," said one woman, a mother of two in her 30s, referencing the anti-Islamization marches centered in the city of Dresden, whose organizers have had off and on ties with the party.
Her sentiments were echoed by the "Don't be racist!" graffiti splattered all over many of the AfD's billboards in downtown Magdeburg, and the party was even forced to cancel a planned election event - a beer hall evening with Poggenburg in the picturesque village of Quedlinburg - due to security worries.
"We were getting too many threats, it just wasn't safe," as an exasperated spokesman put it to DW.
SPD dismisses AfD at its own peril
If the popularity of the AfD is really such a cause of concern, what then, are the mainstream parties doing about it? Not much except decry them as extremists, it seems - not even the SPD, which in Saxony-Anhalt at least, stands to lose the most.
In an interview with DW, state SPD spokesman Martin Krems-Möbbeck was dismissive of the right-wingers. "They are using fear of refugees," he said, directly addressing why the SPD is losing voters to the AfD. "Here in Saxony-Anhalt we have bigger economic problems than the other states. Zero growth in 2015…but nobody talks about that," he added, "for the everyday life of most people, the refugee crisis plays no role."
Looking around in Magdeburg and smaller towns across the state, he may have a point. With its relatively low population, Saxony-Anhalt has also received a smaller amount of refugees per Germany's quota system, and in many places there appear to be no asylum seekers. In fact, the state has about a little under three percent of the country's total refugees, or around 28,000 people from the 1.1 million who came to Germany in 2015.
The SPD's campaign has been more concentrated on distancing itself from the CDU than directly tackling the AfD
Krems-Möbbeck said that across the country, "we can see that the poll results of all democratic parties are sinking as the AfD creates a new extreme-right."
Yet the strategy of the SPD seemed to mostly sidestep the AfD, assuming their flamboyant rhetoric would see them crash and burn, and instead making their differences from coalition partners the CDU clearer.
The message from most of the German political spectrum is clear: the AfD is too nationalistic, undemocratic, much too far right. But with the CDU under Merkel moving ever closer to the center, people who feel marginalized and forgotten by the mainstream may be tempted by what has swept up the conservative side of things in the Christian Democrats' absence. Indeed, the poll numbers, the increasing attacks on refugee homes, a protracted struggle in Berlin over border controls, all but prove this to be the case.