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Merkel’s CDU faces final test as Germans vote in regional elections

Germans were heading to the polls in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, with the far-right posing a tough challenge to Angela Merkel's conservatives in the final major test before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.

Merkel's CDU faces final test as Germans vote in regional elections
Germans in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt are heading to the polls on Sunday, with the far-right posing a tough challenge to Chancellor Merkel's conservatives in the final major test before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

Saxony-Anhalt is one of Germany’s smallest states with a population of just 2.2 million, but with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union running neck-and-neck with the far-right AfD there, the stakes could not be higher for the regional vote.

Victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow for the conservatives and seriously weaken the already fragile standing of the CDU’s new leader Armin Laschet in the run-up to Germany’s national election on September 26th.

“If it turns out that the AfD is slightly stronger than the CDU on Sunday, then there could be debates about personnel in the CDU, and thus a weakening of the entire situation of the CDU,” political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

READ ALSO:  ‘CDU in weak position’: Merkel’s conservatives face crucial test in Germany’s regional elections

At a polling station in Magdeburg, voter Thomas Kibele told AFP he hoped “that many people vote, that the turnout is high, and that we show that populist parties basically have no chance”.

“I think today the CDU will be ahead, followed unfortunately by the AfD and then let’s see,” said fellow voter Karl Mueller.

Merkel’s party has been a dominant force in the eastern region for decades, topping all but one edition of state elections there since reunification in 1990.

But the far-right AfD established a strong foothold there in the last state election in 2016, having capitalised on anger over Merkel’s decision to allow in a wave of migrants from conflict-torn countries such as Syria in 2015.

Reiner Haseloff, Saxony Anhalt’s State Premier and top candidate of his conservative Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) party, and his wife Gabriele, leave a polling station after voting on Sunday in Wittenberg, eastern Germany. (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

In that election, the CDU scooped 30 percent, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. The AfD won 24 percent.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Latest polls published Friday by the Bild newspaper had the CDU at 27 percent, one point ahead of the AfD.

A ‘disaster’ for conservatives

Although support for the AfD at the national level has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent in recent months, the party continues to be popular in the former East German states.

Its recent move to style itself as the party bashing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, attracting support beyond its core base of anti-immigration voters.

The AfD will not be able to govern even if it wins in Saxony-Anhalt, as all the other parties have ruled out forming an alliance with it.

But losing to the AfD would be, as Spiegel magazine puts it, “a disaster” for Laschet – nominated as the conservative chancellor candidate in April.

READ ALSO: Meet Armin Laschet, the king of comebacks grasping for Merkel’s throne

“Laschet urgently needs a success to rally the Union behind him for the national election campaign,” said the magazine.

“The last thing he would need is a renewed debate about the AfD within his party, which would become unstoppable in case of an election defeat in Saxony-Anhalt.”

CDU is the ‘force of the political middle ground’

The conservatives have already taken a hammering in the polls as Merkel prepares to bow out, hurt by anger over the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

At Germany’s last regional elections in March – in the states of Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg – the CDU suffered its worst ever results in both states.

With Merkel having pulled the CDU closer to the centre, it is essentially caught between two fronts – with the far-right AfD on one end and the centre-left Greens on the other.

Laschet has promised to maintain CDU as the “force of the political middle ground”.

But political analyst Oskar Niedermayer told AFP that the reality is that voters in the east tend to be “more conservative and more nationalist” than in the west.

This means that the CDU needs to “set different thematic priorities in the east and in the west” if it wants to maintain its broad base of support, he said.

“That is no easy task.”

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TRANSPORT

How the Greens want to replace Germany’s €9 ticket deal

New proposals drafted by the Green Party have set out plans for two new cheap travel tickets in Germany as well as a shake-up of the country's travel zones. Here's what you need to know.

How the Greens want to replace Germany's €9 ticket deal

What’s going on?

Germany’s €9 travel deal has been hugely popular this summer, with an estimated 30 million or so passengers taking advantage of the offer in June alone. Now the last month of the three-month offer is underway, there are hopes that the ticket could be replaced by another deal that offers simple, affordable travel on a regional or national basis.

There have been a few ideas for this floating around, including a €365 annual ticket and a €69 monthly ticket pitched by German transport operators. Now the Green Party has weighed in with a concept paper setting out plans for two separate travel tickets to replace the €9 ticket. The paper was obtained by ARD Hauptstadtstudio on Friday. 

Why do they want two different tickets?

The first ticket would be a regional one costing just €29 a month and the second would be a €49 that, much like the €9 ticket, would be valid for the whole of Germany.

This would allow people who mainly stay in their local region to opt for the most cost-effective option while long-distance commuters or those who want to travel further afield could opt for the nationwide offer.

Presumably the ticket would once again be valid for local and regional transport only rather than long-distance trains like the ICE. 

To simplify the system even more, the Greens also want to introduce new travel zones for the regional monthly tickets.

READ ALSO: Has Germany’s €9 rail ticket been a success?

How would the travel zones change?

According to the paper, Germany would be divided into eight regional zones that would include the Berlin-Brandenburg area, the eastern German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt and the northern states of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. 

The zones take passengers “statewide at a minimum”, the paper says, for example in the larger states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North-Rhine Westphalia.

However, as the map below shows, states will also be clustered together to make larger regions.

One of the major draws of the €9 ticket has been the flat-rate system that allows passengers to travel anywhere in the country using the same ticket. This appears to be what the Greens are trying to replicate with their proposals. 

READ ALSO: What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

How would this be financed? 

As you might expect, the Green Party is placing less eco-friendly forms of transport in the crosshairs as it looks for cash to fund the cheap tickets.

The first way to free up cash would be to end tax breaks for people with company cars. In addition, taxes on CO2 emissions would be increased. 

This would result in “additional revenues for the federal government and the states, which could flow seamlessly into the financing of cheap tickets”, the paper states. 

However, the Greens don’t set out how much money they think this would bring in or how much the discounted tickets would cost the state in total. 

Is this definitely going to happen?

At the moment, it seems that the Greens are the main voices in the coalition government pushing for a longer term travel deal – and they continue to face opposition from the pro-business FDP.

Unfortunately for the Green Party, the FDP happen to be heading up two crucial ministries that could both play a role in blocking a future offer: the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry. 

However, with four out of five people saying they want to see a successor to the €9 ticket in autumn, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) is currently under pressure to come up with a replacement as soon as possible. 

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof waiting for a train. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Joerg Carstensen

At a press conference a few weeks ago, he promised to discuss this with the state transport ministers after analysing how successful the ticket had been.

In particular, researchers will want to look at how many people ended up leaving the car at home and taking the bus or train instead.

Though the data on this is inconclusive at the moment, some studies have shown reduced congestion on the roads while the ticket was running.

In a survey of The Local’s readers conducted last month, 80 percent of respondents said they had used public transport more with the €9 ticket and 85 percent said they wanted to see a similar deal continue in the autumn.

Of the options on the table so far, a monthly €29 ticket was by far the most popular choice.

READ ALSO: ‘Affordable and simple’: What foreigners in Germany want to see after the €9 ticket

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