Shifting politics raise the stakes in Germany’s state elections

According to many polls, the SPD will receive about 20% of the votes, compared to 31.9% in 2014. Votes in favour of the AfD, on the other hand, could increase by about 8 percentage points, which would mean that the far-right party would overtake the SPD with the largest number of votes. EPA/JAN WOITAS [EPA/JAN WOITAS]

State elections in Brandenburg and Saxony – two coal mining regions in former East Germany – are likely to reverberate across the country, and even Europe, EURACTIV Germany reports.

The stakes are rising for Germany’s latest round of elections. The socialist party (SPD) is on the verge of losing its top spot to the far-right AfD in east Germany, a scenario that could destabilise the ‘Grand Coalition’ in place at the federal level.

“The further strengthening of the AfD in the East and its possible participation in the state’s government could have serious consequences not only for Germany but also for Europe,” warned Rainer Wieland, centre-right MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP).

“Following the state elections it will become clear whether the grand coalition will continue governing or whether there will be early elections at the federal level,” said Wieland, who is one of the vice-presidents of the European Parliament.

Brandenburg has been governed by the SPD since the reunification of Germany. But new contenders are now clearly challenging the socialist’s top spot.

According to several opinion polls, the SPD could receive about 20% of the votes, compared to 31.9% in 2014. Votes in favour of the AfD, on the other hand, could rise by about 8 percentage points, meaning that the far-right would overtake the SPD as the largest party in the region.

If those polls are confirmed, demands to end the grand coalition at federal level will likely intensify. The opposition will argue it is high time for them to have a say after coalition partners slipped below 15% nationwide.

In Saxony, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is likely to stay ahead of the pack, but is expected to slip from its 2014 score of 39.4% to just under 30%. The SPD, for its part, is expected to crumble to 8% compared to 12.4% in 2014.

The AfD, meanwhile, could rise from 9.7% to just under 25%, polls say.

A Green turnaround in coal regions?

However, nothing is set in stone. A new opinion poll, published yesterday by the Tagesspiegel, puts the SPD on par with AfD in Brandenburg.

Big parties are likely to perform relatively well, despite the gloomy survey results, says Arndt Leiniger, a political scientist who also considers the excitement about the strengthening of the AfD to be exaggerated.

“It will be far more decisive whether the FDP comes to the Landtag,” he told EURACTIV, highlighting that it will be more decisive for the formation of a coalition following the election.

Voting results are also expected to go in favour of the Greens. The party could double its votes and possibly reach 14% in Brandenburg and 11% in Saxony.

However, this is likely to deepen rifts among the population. Besides, the proclamation of a green revolution in Germany’s coal-mining regions would probably be somewhat premature.

In Saxony alone, 20% of Germany’s raw lignite is being mined. This corresponds to around 3.5% of raw lignite extracted worldwide. For Brandenburg, about 4,500 people are employed in the sector. Those working in the lignite industry there fear that they will not be able to find employment once they have left the coal industry.

The federal cabinet is attempting to dispel these voter concerns with the new Structural Reinforcement Bill, which was presented on Wednesday (27 August).

€40 billion have been promised to the coal regions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, to help them eliminate coal by 2038.

German coal regions to be allocated €40 billion as part of coal phase-out plan

Germany’s federal cabinet has presented a bill to allocate €40 billion to some federal states so they can prepare for structural changes related to transitioning away from coal. However, it remains unclear when the power plants will be shut down. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“The effects of the bill, however, are likely to be modest,” Leininger said.

Leiniger does not expect this election promise to be reflected so quickly in the election results. For the Greens, the region is not an easy one, particularly since voters are experiencing an economic slowdown there.

Saxony, in particular, with its highest export ratio by East German standards and a relatively high share in the industry, will be hardest hit by the slowdwon. This is according to Robert Lehmann, who is a research associate at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research.

In 2018, for example, the industry accounted for 21% of the state’s total economy. Vehicle construction in particular plays a key role for Saxony, yet the automobile industry is currently suffering from a slump in global demand. In Brandenburg, the industry accounts for 14% of the economy.

All these challenges are expected to gain importance in the coming years. However, the Greens are optimistic that they will continue seeing success at federal level, including in the East.

The Greens could play a key role in forming a coalition given that the big traditional parties ruled out a coalition with the AfD, political analyst Arne Jungjohann told EURACTIV.de.

Things are likely to become quite complicated following the two state elections, particularly in Saxony.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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