Can Germany’s Greens win over voters in eastern states ahead of election?

Long popular in western cities, Germany's Greens are bumping up against a wall with voters in the ex-communist east that could cost them the chance to snatch Chancellor Angela Merkel's crown when she retires this year.

Can Germany's Greens win over voters in eastern states ahead of election?
Green co-leader and chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt ahead of the regional election there. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

The now 40-year-old centre-left ecologist party will gather from Friday for a congress to plot the course toward September’s general election after a bruising performance last Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt state.

The poor vote showing cemented an image of lost momentum for the party, which for the first time in its history is staking a claim to the chancellery. 

READ ALSO: Merkel’s conservatives win last state vote before election

“The Greens are still both: potentially the strongest political force in the country and a small niche party, depending on the place, time and
situation,” news weekly Der Spiegel said.

Despite ambitions for a double-digit result, the Greens notched up just six percent in the country’s poorest state – less than a point higher than their 2016 score.

“It wasn’t what we had hoped,” admitted a dejected Annalena Baerbock, also 40, the Greens’ chancellor candidate.

“Some of our messaging on climate protection failed to cut through to the voters,” she said, despite devastating droughts in the rural region in recent summers.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s CDU gains momentum after victory in key German state vote

“In the east, which is still marked by the shock of reunification, potentially costly ecological measures are not a big draw for voters,”  political scientist Hajo Funke told AFP.

The election handed Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) a resounding win with 37 percent of the vote, pushing the far-right AfD into a distant second place with 21 percent.

The strong outcome put wind in the sails of CDU leader Armin Laschet, Baerbock’s main opponent to run Europe’s top economy after 16 years of Merkel at the helm.

Two-horse race 

The Greens, out of federal government since 2005, had been riding high at the national level, with voters telling pollsters the climate crisis is their  top concern, albeit by a much larger margin in the west.

A survey last month also showed Germans hungry for change, with more than 60 percent hoping for a new government after the election.

Senior Greens say they are happy the campaign is shaping up as a two-horse race, and that excitement about the youthful Baerbock, a mother of two small children, has endured among their energised base.

But they acknowledge Baerbock, who is from the west but represents an eastern constituency outside Berlin in parliament, will have to make the
Greens more than an one-issue party if they hope to win outright.

Greens co-leader Robert Habeck said the weekend election disappointment served as a wake-up call that they would need to “look beyond climate protection”.

He cited addressing the growing cleft between rural poverty and urban wealth, particularly in creating opportunities for young jobseekers, and
expanding public transport infrastructure as sure vote winners.

He acknowledged that the “enormous political effort” required to bring down carbon dioxide emissions would have to be accompanied by “social measures” to cushion the blow to those whose jobs would be shed in the energy transition.

The party is also planning a targeted campaign for voters over the age of 60 in both east and west, arguing that “climate protection is also a policy for your grandkids”.

‘Bad luck and slip-ups’

But beyond the issues preoccupying voters in the east, whose economic output continues to lag behind the west three decades after reunification, a series of gaffes by Baerbock in recent weeks has taken some of the shine off.

“There wasn’t a Baerbock effect in the Saxony-Anhalt election – if anything she probably weighed the state party down with oversights, bad luck
and slip-ups,” business newspaper Handelsblatt said.

A failure to declare to parliament a bonus she received from the party and inaccuracies – since corrected – on her CV have undermined the party’s message of improved transparency.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s Greens face tougher election race after series of gaffes?

Comments by Habeck on a visit to Kiev last month appearing to back supplying arms to Ukraine added to negative headlines, even if he quickly
rowed them back.

Green proposals for hiking petrol prices and eliminating domestic flights in favour of rail and bus connections have also gone down badly in some quarters.

Senior Green officials admit it will be an uphill battle to counter conservative bids to paint them as a party just for latte-sipping, electric
vehicle-driving urbanites.

“We have got to keep working on making clear that we are a party at home in cities and the countryside,” parliamentary group leader Katrin  Goering-Eckardt, who is from the eastern state of Thuringia, told public radio.

By Mathieu FOULKES and Deborah COLE

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German far-right AfD thwarted in mayoral race near former Nazi camp

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on Sunday lost a tight mayoral race where the party had been tipped to secure the office of city mayor for the first time.

German far-right AfD thwarted in mayoral race near former Nazi camp

The AfD’s candidate Jörg Prophet was defeated by independent incumbent Kai Buchmann in a run-off vote that put the spotlight on the city of Nordhausen in the former East German state of Thuringia.

The prospect of a win for the far-right party was described as a “catastrophe” by the keepers of a nearby concentration camp memorial ahead of the ballot.

Around 60,000 prisoners were held in the Mittelbau-Dora slave labour camp — a sub-camp of the notorious Buchenwald — only six kilometres from central Nordhausen.

They were forced to make V-2 rockets in brutal underground conditions, with around one in three worked to death.

An AfD mayor would not have been welcome at commemorative events at the site’s memorial, Jens-Christian Wagner, director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Why are the far-right AfD doing so well in German polls?

‘Weight lifted’

“The AfD is an extreme right-wing party whose ideology is congruent or at least very similar in many areas to the ideology of the National Socialists,” he said.

Prophet looked confident ahead of the vote, flashing a brilliant white grin to passers-by at his campaign stand in the small but prosperous city.

The 61-year-old argued he represented a fresh start for Nordhausen after six-year incumbent Buchmann had fallen out of favour with many residents after repeatedly clashing with the city council.

Like many members of the far-right party, Prophet has been accused of extremism and historical revisionism.

In a blog post in 2020, he claimed the Allied forces that liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp were only interested in snooping on the site’s rocket and missile technology.

He also called for an end to Germany’s Schuldkult, or “guilt cult”, a reference to the country’s efforts to remember and learn from the Holocaust.

But in the end, Prophet failed to gather the support needed to become city mayor, collecting 45.1 percent of the vote.

The result guaranteed a “normal life for Nordhausen”, Buchmann said after the outcome became clear.

With the result “a huge weight has been lifted”, Wagner told news channel NTV.

It made clear that “you cannot win elections with historical revisionism, with an attitude that downplays the suffering of concentration camp prisoners”, he said.

Regional tests

Nonetheless, right-wing extremist attitudes are becoming increasingly widespread in Germany, according to a survey published this week by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Eight percent of Germans can now be classified as having clear right-wing extremist views, compared with two to three percent in previous years, the foundation said.

READ ALSO: Number of right-wing extremists in Germany ‘triples’

The AfD, created in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit before seizing on anger over mass migration to Germany, has had a string of successes of late.

The party secured its first district administrator position in June, also in Thuringia, and its first town mayor in July in neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt.

At the national level, recent opinion polls have put the party on 22 percent, above Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD and only a few points behind the main opposition conservative party.

The AfD’s support is especially strong in Thuringia, where it is polling  around 34 percent, according to a recent survey by regional broadcaster MDR.

Thuringia will hold a vote for its regional parliament in September 2024, along with two other former East German states, Brandenburg and Saxony.