Politics & Society
Trouble Brewing in Saxony-Anhalt’s Elections
How Nostalgia is Challenging Germany’s Political Future
The eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in Germany is often overlooked. In a 2018 poll, Deutsche Welle users voted it the German state that they would least like to visit, ranking just below Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and Saarland.
But the state means a great deal to me: June 2021 marks nearly a decade since I first visited the state’s capital, Magdeburg, as an exchange student. I had a wonderful host family, and my initial stay and countless visits thereafter set me on a path to study German and ultimately pursue a career in the German-American community. Throughout college, I kept a map of Saxony-Anhalt on my desk, reminiscing about our trips to Wernigerode, home to Germany’s oldest city hall, and Wittenberg, where, legend has it, Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the city’s cathedral door, sparking the Protestant Reformation. But despite the beautiful and historic corners of the state, when I tell people about my strong connection to Saxony-Anhalt, I typically receive reactions of remorseful curiosity.
Throughout college, I kept a map of Saxony-Anhalt on my desk, reminiscing about our trips to Wernigerode, home to Germany’s oldest city hall, and Wittenberg, where, legend has it, Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the city’s cathedral door, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
To an extent, I understand. Saxony-Anhalt has some rough edges, and it has proved to be especially troublesome for Germany’s political landscape over the past several years — I’ve seen it up close. In early October 2015, I attended my first Bundesliga match with my host father to see the hometown heroes, FC Magdeburg, and I relished the chance to finally see a match live. Ultimately, however, it was a night of two firsts.
After the game, we took the tram home, and had to switch at the Ernst Reuter Allee, the largest intersection of the city, characterized best by its classic 1950s Soviet architecture. As we switched trams, something strange happened. A small demonstration marched past us through the street. It was a “refugees welcome” rally, made up largely of what appeared to be university students. On the other side of us were the fans still in the tram, inebriated and rowdy from the game, cursing and slandering the peaceful marchers passing by. We were caught in the middle, standing on the platform. In the late evening, the light from the tram illuminated every detail of the fans’ faces, and I saw visceral anger, bordering on hatred.
It was the beginning of the European migrant crisis that would bring more than a million refugees to Germany and would have wide-ranging implications for German and European politics even today. Just six months after that young people’s march, politics in Saxony-Anhalt suffered a jolt. The populist, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party which campaigned on a xenophobic, anti-immigration platform, took nearly 25 percent of the vote. The AfD had entered other state parliaments before, but the electoral result in Saxony-Anhalt turned heads across the country. It sparked fresh questions about the influence of the country’s far right and the extent to which the East-West divide persisted.
The populist, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party which campaigned on a xenophobic, anti-immigration platform, took nearly 25 percent of the vote.
The conversations I had with my host family over the years, especially with my parents, revealed a general frustration with the way in which the Wende, the reunification of Germany, took place. They felt left behind and often voiced a longing for the sense of community and security that prevailed before the Wall fell. Today, the state of Saxony-Anhalt has one of the lowest GDPs of Germany’s states and one of the highest unemployment rates. The economic disparities and grievances felt within the state provided fertile ground for the AfD to stoke fear over Germany’s immigration policies. The perfect storm of dissatisfaction and disinformation provided a vacuum in which the AfD has cultivated a strong base of support in Saxony-Anhalt and across the former East. It’s a dangerous concoction — one that’s increasingly imbibed on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Due to the AfD’s extremist platform, Germany’s main political parties have vowed to not cooperate with the party. The significant AfD contingent in Saxony-Anhalt’s parliament, however, has challenged their resolve. Just in December 2020, the state’s government nearly collapsed as politicians from the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sparred over potential cooperation with the AfD on an otherwise trivial matter, broadcasting fees. In January 2021, the state intelligence service placed the AfD under surveillance for its undemocratic activities, but the move does not appear to have dampened support for the party.
The AfD is expected to have a sizable showing, and one recent poll even indicates that the party could accomplish the unprecedented for a far-right party in postwar Germany — winning a plurality in a major election.
Five years after the 2016 election, Saxony-Anhalt is set to elect a new parliament this Sunday, June 6th. The AfD is expected to have a sizable showing, and one recent poll even indicates that the party could accomplish the unprecedented for a far-right party in postwar Germany — winning a plurality in a major election. Regardless, a strong showing for the AfD would likely complicate coalition building after election day, as the current ruling government of the CDU, Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Greens would no longer possess a majority. It also further complicates the CDU’s commitment to non-cooperation with the extremist group – and others, like the popular Die Linke, a party with roots in East Germany’s former communist party. A more optimistic reading of the situation on the ground shows that the AfD’s standing has not changed much in the past five years. The collapse of the CDU’s popularity nationwide has seen voters move not exclusively to the far right, but rather toward the rising Greens and resurgent Free Democrats. Regardless, the potential electoral success of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt will likely overshadow any silver linings.
As we look forward to Sunday’s election, I’m still reminded of that evening in the heart of Magdeburg’s city center. It was a harbinger of the electoral shock that arrived six months later. Now, we find ourselves on the eve of yet another potentially unsettling electoral result, one that reveals the extent to which residual economic and social disparities between East and West continue to challenge Germany’s political status quo.