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Merkel and allies lose votes but hang on in German elections as AfD surges

Merkel and allies lose votes but hang on in German elections as AfD surges
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and coalition partners SPD have managed to cling to power in two crucial state elections. However, these former strongholds have seen a surge in support for Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The states of Saxony and Brandenburg –once part of the East German DDR– have long been considered bastions of support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the left-wing Social Democrats (SPD). However, parliamentary election results on Sunday have dealt another blow to the so-called ‘Grand Coalition.’

Saxony has been ruled by CDU prime ministers since the 1990s and is considered by some as the party’s spiritual home. However, the CDU saw its support drop to 32 percent on Sunday, down 7.4 points since the last election in 2014, according to an exit poll by German broadcaster ARD. While the party remains the largest in the state, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) came a close second, taking 27.5 percent of the vote on Sunday, up from 9.7 percent in 2014.

Brandenburg encircles Berlin, and has been ruled by the SPD since German reunification in 1990. The AfD’s hopes of surrounding the German capital were dashed on Sunday, but not by a wide margin. The SPD won 27.5 percent of the vote, ahead of the AfD's 22.5 percent. In 2014, AfD only managed to score 12.2 percent, while the socialists took just under 32 percent.

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While campaigning in Branderburg, AfD invoked the spirit of 1989 to win votes, printing posters bearing the slogan “Wende 2.0,” referring to the German word for 'turnaround,' used to describe the collapse of East Germany. While the party made a name for itself by vocally opposing Merkel’s 'open door' immigration policies, it has also positioned itself as a champion of the relatively disadvantaged east, protesting the planned closure of coal mines and calling for urban regeneration.

Though refugee and migrant arrivals to Germany have slowed since the initial 2015 influx - which saw more than a million new arrivals turn up in the country - AfD has managed to grow and strengthen, despite initial predictions that its popularity would wane as the refugee crisis abated. Previously unrepresented in the Bundestag, AfD became the parliament’s third biggest party in the 2017 federal election, taking 12.6 percent of the vote.

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With right-wing voters abandoning the establishment parties for AfD, left-wing voters are also being pulled away. The SPD, in particular, is currently going through arguably the worst popular support crisis in the party’s modern history, with many members accusing leaders of drifting from party values over their years-long alliance with Merkel’s CDU. 

Waiting in the wings to hoover up the disaffected left vote are parties like the Greens, who though traditionally unpopular in eastern Germany, managed to make modest gains on Sunday. The Greens scored 8.8 percent in Saxony and 10.2 percent in Brandenburg, up from around six percent in both states in 2014.

While two poor results in state elections don’t quite spell doom for Merkel’s ruling coalition yet, they are an important barometer of public opinion, two years out from Germany’s next federal election. Should the decline in support continue, and should all of the country’s other political parties continue to rule out working with AfD, the question of who will steer Europe’s economic powerhouse next is a truly open one.

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