Merkel's party facing tough fight in eastern state election
Germans were heading to the polls in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, with the far-right posing a tough challenge to Angela Merkel's conservatives in the final major test before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.
Saxony-Anhalt is one of Germany's smallest states with a population of just 2.2 million, but with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union running neck-and-neck with the far-right AfD there, the stakes could not be higher for the regional vote.
Victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow for the conservatives and seriously weaken the already fragile standing of the CDU's new leader Armin Laschet in the run-up to Germany's national election on September 26.
"If it turns out that the AfD is slightly stronger than the CDU on Sunday, then there could be debates about personnel in the CDU, and thus a weakening of the entire situation of the CDU," political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin's Free University said.
At a polling station in Magdeburg, voter Thomas Kibele said he hoped "that many people vote, that the turnout is high, and that we show that populist parties basically have no chance."
"I think today the CDU will be ahead, followed unfortunately by the AfD and then let's see," said fellow voter Karl Mueller.
Merkel's party has been a dominant force in the eastern region for decades, topping all but one edition of state elections there since reunification in 1990.
But the far-right AfD established a strong foothold there in the last state election in 2016, having capitalized on anger over Merkel's decision to allow in a wave of migrants from conflict-torn countries such as Syria in 2015.
In that election, the CDU scooped 30 percent, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. The AfD won 24 percent.
Latest polls published on Friday by the Bild daily had the CDU at 27 percent, 1 point ahead of the AfD.
Although support for the AfD at the national level has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent in recent months, the party continues to be popular in the former East German states.
Its recent move to style itself as the party bashing Merkel's tough shutdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, attracting support beyond its core base of anti-immigration voters.
The AfD will not be able to govern even if it wins in Saxony-Anhalt, as all the other parties have ruled out forming an alliance with it.
But losing to the AfD would be, as Spiegel magazine puts it, "a disaster" for Laschet – nominated as the conservative chancellor candidate in April.