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Why votes in eastern Germany are important

Cristina Burack
September 1, 2019

Elections on Sunday in Saxony and neighboring Brandenburg, two states in the former East Germany, have the entire country holding its breath. The far-right AfD is poised to do well, and the results could be historic.

Ballot paper being put into box
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Michael

Merkel’s CDU prepares for losses

Voters in the states of Saxony and Brandenburg are voting in highly anticipated parliamentary elections. Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0600 UTC) and will close at 6 p.m.

The results will not only determine their respective regional governments for the next five years. They could also have repercussions at the national level, and mark a turning point in the post-reunification political history of these two former East German states. Just over a month later, Thuringia also goes to the polls.

So what makes these state elections so important for Germany?

1. The far-right AfD could make history

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is by no means an exclusively eastern German phenomenon. It is the main opposition party in the German parliament, the Bundestag. And it has representatives in every state parliament. However, the party does have pronounced widespread support in the east, where its leadership is also especially hard-line. In comparison to around 13% support at the national level, the AfD is currently polling at 25% in Saxony and 21% in Brandenburg, where it even tops the polls. 

Read more: A German border town's Left government and AfD voters

It is buoyed in part by its anti-immigration stance. Many prospective voters in eastern Germany have criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy, and recent polls have shown migration and asylum policy to be a vote-determining topic in Saxony.

If the AfD were to emerge as the strongest party in any of the states, it would be a first for the 6-year-old party — and the first time in Germany's post-World War II history that a far-right party wins a state-level election. It would also increase party momentum ahead of October elections in Thuringia, home to one of the AfD's most extreme leaders, Björn Höcke.

Read more: AfD surge in eastern Germany sets up clash of cultures

2. The Left party is at a crossroads

Thuringia has the only Left-led state government in German history. Ultimately the successor to the former East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), the Left party has naturally performed best where it has its historic roots. 

Today, the Left is often referred to as both an eastern German people's party and a protest party, but its support has ticked down in the east over the past decade.

During the current state campaigns, the AfD has controversially styled itself as the heir to Germany's "Wende," or "turning point," a word that refers to the peaceful democratic transition during reunification. If Left voters are ultimately found to have migrated to the AfD, the result would leave the far-right party taking up the mantle of the Left as eastern Germany's anti-establishment party.

3. The Greens aim to thrive in a historically tough environment

The Greens are riding high at the national level, and registered impressive results in May's EU elections. But eastern Germany isn't considered friendly territory — particularly Brandenburg and Saxony, where lignite coal mining has long been a historically significant industry. Though the number of people employed in mining has fallen drastically since reunification, older voters especially, who lived through the sector's job losses and other industry closures, may find the Greens' call to speedily end polluting activities hard to swallow.

Read more: Eastern German states demand €60 billion for coal phaseout

In the past, the Greens have often struggled to gain seats in the Saxony and Brandenburg parliaments. But recent polls show that support for them in the east has grown. In Brandenburg, the party is even polling on roughly equal footing with traditional catch-all parties such as Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Thanks to their unabashedly open immigration stance, the Greens are seen by many as the polar opposite of the AfD.

Depending on how the other parties fare, the Greens could step into the role of kingmaker in state parliaments. At the very least, strong results would bode well for the Greens at national level.

Read more: German Greens attempt to win over voters in skeptical East

Rise of Germany's Greens

4. They could bring down Angela Merkel's coalition government

The state elections will be a litmus test of its overall strength. Party leaders at federal level have announced a mid-term evaluation for their fragile coalition by mid-October.

Brandenburg is a stronghold of the SPD and Saxony of the CDU. Both the CDU and the SPD are expected to take a hit and the repercussions could even lead to the collapse of the national coalition government. This would not necessarily mean fresh national elections, however. Merkel's CDU could form a minority government.

Poor election results could convince them to call it quits on the government teamwork, with the hope being that a shake-up would improve their respective support. 

Read more: Is socialism the future for Germany's ailing SPD?

5. It could be the calm before the storm

While the September 1 races are too close to reliably predict, one outcome seems certain: increased political fragmentation. The trend can be seen at the national and European level, and Brandenburg and Saxony is expected to be no exception.

The states' current coalitions will likely fail to regain their two-party governing majorities. All of the mainstream parties have ruled out working with the AfD, which means three or even four parties could be needed to form a coalition. This will be even more complicated, should the AfD emerge as the strongest party in the individual states.

Extensive political comprise could be required, taking time and potentially leading to unstable partnerships. That is not the preferred situation for stability-craving Germans.  

Although the three states combined only account for around 10% of Germany's total population, these elections could unleash a political storm.

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