Will Germany′s ′Görliwood′ elect far-right AfD mayor? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.06.2019
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Will Germany's 'Görliwood' elect far-right AfD mayor?

The populist AfD party may soon win its first mayoral post nationwide. Voting in the small, but once grand city of Görlitz is seen as a bellwether for how well the far-right message resonates in the former East Germany.

Görlitz, Germany's easternmost city, is making rare national headlines this weekend. The far-right candidate for mayor, Sebastian Wippel, already came out on top of a three-way contest in May. Winning Sunday's runoff would put the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in charge of its first city nationwide.

That possibility has gotten the attention of political and social activists, who say the AfD's anti-migrant and xenophobic agenda doesn't reflect the city's social fabric. "Görlitz is a melting pot," Michael Simon de Normier told DW. "(The AfD) is not what Görlitz is about."

The German film producer, perhaps best known for his connection to the 2008 Oscar-winning Hollywood adaptation The Reader, which was shot in Görlitz, is behind the most prominent anti-AfD effort. In an open letter published online and signed by about 30 of his film colleagues whom he calls "global friends of the city of Görlitz," he pleaded with voters to bring tolerance and peace with them to the ballot box. "Do not give in to hate, hostility, strife and marginalization," the letter reads, although it avoids explicitly mentioning either the AfD or any other party or candidate. "Do not give up when things go wrong."

Görlitz's crumbling heritage

Indeed, much has gone wrong in the picturesque but crumbling city. The medieval-era town was an important trading center for Europe, and later profited from industrialization. Nestled up against the Neisse River that forms the border with Poland, the millennium-old city survived the Second World War largely unscathed, but found itself part of communist East Germany after the war. Soviet influence took its toll on the economy and the city's old-world splendor.

Read more: German income inequality and the deepening east-west divide

In reunified Germany, eastern states still lag behind, hurt by brain drain, job loss and stagnation. Today, 300,000 annual tourists far exceed Görlitz's 56,000 residents ⁠— half its prewar population. Unemployment in the city is more than double the national average of 3.4 percent.

Although Görlitz is a popular location for major films ⁠— more than 100 have been shot there, leading to its nickname "Görliwood" ⁠— the city lacks the funds to restore hundreds of crumbling buildings, including some 200 that are in such dire condition that the state keeps an extra eye on them out of fear they will collapse.

This is fertile ground for populist politics. The AfD's strongest base is in eastern states like Saxony, where Görlitz is located. The party won 27 percent of the vote there in 2017 general elections, helping it nab third place nationwide and enter the German parliament for the first time. For statewide elections in September, polls suggest the AfD may come out on top.

Read more: How artists in eastern Germany fight far-right intolerance

A campaign poster for Görlitz mayoral candidate Sebastian Wippel (AfD) (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert)

Görlitz mayoral candidate Sebastian Wippel (AfD) says his supporters are open to discussion: "You don't have to be scared of the AfD ... you can talk to anyone"

Who's afraid of the AfD?

Such a right-leaning electoral backdrop is adding a layer of drama to the Görlitz race that might otherwise be absent from a small city election. The candidate in question, however, doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"You don't have to be scared of the AfD. Just look around at the people here at this stand. You can talk to anyone," Wippel told DW, referring to party volunteers and supporters at a campaign event in Görlitz. "We aren't vigilante members. We are normal conservative citizens."

In a blog post on his candidate website, Wippel wrote that he "welcomes" criticism as part of a "lively democracy," though he dismissed the open letter as an effort by Hollywood outsiders, adding: "I'm fine with it because we Görlitzer are best suited to judge our situation and don't need tips from outside."

Read more: The far-right culture war escalates

Watch video 02:42

AfD candidate leads mayoral race in Görlitz

Knowing when a 'decision is right'

Wippel's detractors fear it's those viewed as coming from the outside who will be most at risk in the city should he win. Though the campaign for mayor has focused largely on local issues, his political motto extends to all of Germany: "A decision is right if it's good for the German nation." His candidate profile counts "obsession with minorities" as a cause of social failure.

It's unclear if Wippel can really win on Sunday. He carried 36.4 percent of the first vote, just six points ahead of his center-right opponent, Octavian Ursu of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. The Greens candidate, Franziska Schubert, made a strong third place showing with almost 28 percent, a result she told local media surprised even her.

Schubert has since dropped out of the race and thrown her support behind Ursu. If her supporters follow her lead, it would all but obliterate Wippel's shot at the majority he needs to become Germany's first far-right mayor.

DW's Linda Vierecke contributed reporting from Görlitz.

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