For Markus Motschmann of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the coronavirus lockdown has been a “test run” for dictatorship.
Similarly draconian measures will soon be imposed to deal with climate change, such as driving bans and night-time curfews, he predicted. “Corona was a blueprint,” he said. “It’s the gateway to tyranny.”
Such views could be dismissed as the ravings of a conspiracy theorist. But Motschmann is no crackpot. He is chief physician at a private hospital in the pretty town of Haldensleben in north-east Germany and an AfD candidate in Sunday’s elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt — a poll whose outcome could reverberate in Berlin and beyond.
The vote marks the last time Germans go to the polls before Bundestag elections in September that bring the curtain down on Angela Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor. As such, it will be an important test for Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the man who hopes to succeed her.
But CDU candidates admit they are battling a wave of voter anger. “We were doing very well last year but the mood has shifted,” said Tim Tessmann, a social worker who is standing in Haldensleben. “People are very critical of the lockdown measures and the slow pace of vaccinations . . . They’re fed up with promises that haven’t been kept.”
The AfD is the main beneficiary of the discontent. The party, known for its hardline stance on immigration, slumped in the polls over the past few years as the number of overseas migrants into Germany declined. But voter frustration at pandemic control measures has given the hard-right party a fresh lease of life — at least in the east of the country.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has experienced huge economic shocks in the decades since reunification. It has long been happy hunting ground for the AfD: at the height of the EU refugee crisis five years ago, it scored 24.3 per cent of the vote, one of its best ever results. Some polls suggest it could do even better on Sunday.
The AfD’s strength in the former communist east poses a problem for Berlin. All other parties have refused to have anything to do with it. But that has made it increasingly difficult to form functioning governments in the eastern states: the electoral arithmetic barely adds up any more.
Saxony-Anhalt is a classic example. For 23 of the 31 years since German reunification it has been run by the CDU. But to stay in power after the 2016 election, the party was forced into a cumbersome coalition with the Greens and Social Democrats — the first such tie-up in German history.
That was a hard pill to swallow for Saxony-Anhalt’s Christian Democrats, who are generally far more conservative than their comrades in western Germany.
Laschet insisted this week that the CDU would have no truck with the AfD. “We won’t talk to them, we won’t co-operate with them and we won’t form coalitions with them,” he told German radio.
But long term, some think the cordon sanitaire around the AfD could collapse. “My impression is that if the AfD becomes really strong, the policy will hit the skids,” said Michael Kraske, an expert on the German far-right.
Motschmann, who was part of the extremist Republikaner party in the 1980s, agrees. “A lot of Christian Democrats would much prefer a coalition with the AfD to one with the Greens and SPD,” he said.
A glance in the party’s manifesto for Saxony-Anhalt, however, shows how problematic it is as a potential partner. The AfD wants to deport all failed asylum seekers, ban the Muslim call to prayer and make it harder for foreigners to acquire German citizenship.
It rejects climate policies that are now mainstream in Germany, calling for a ban on new wind turbines, a reversal of the planned phaseout of coal-fired power and a halt to subsidies for electric cars. It also wants to shut anti-racist initiatives in schools, claiming racism does not exist in Germany.
Yet there are plenty of conservatives in Saxony-Anhalt who sympathise. Two senior CDU MPs caused outrage in 2019 by arguing in a position paper that politics must “reconcile the social with the national” — a phrase with chilling echoes of Nazism. The two are running in third and fourth place in the CDU’s regional list.
Such ideological debates come at a bad time for the CDU. It soared in the polls last year as voters rewarded Merkel’s deft handling of the first phase of the pandemic. But it has fallen back this year, amid delays with the inoculation campaign, a corruption scandal involving some of its MPs and an unseemly power struggle at the top of the party. Laschet, who became its candidate for chancellor in April, has proved a hard sell to Germans now ever more inclined to vote Green.
Recent polls show support for the CDU has begun to tick up again. But on the campaign trail, Tessmann still faced awkward questions on the government’s often bewildering coronavirus policies, he said. Why, locals wanted to know, were hardware stores open in Saxony-Anhalt but closed in Lower Saxony next door? “That was a textbook example of how inconsistent and confusing the regulations often are,” he said.
The AfD, too, has had a torrid year, roiled by an internecine feud between relative moderates and far-right extremists that has split the party down the middle. Germany’s intelligence agency moved in March to designate it as a suspected extreme rightwing organisation.
Yet despite these crises, polls show the party could garner as much as a quarter of the vote on Sunday. “It’s quite conceivable that, in terms of votes cast, it will emerge from this election as the winner,” said Kraske.