Election Sunday left me at once elated, uncertain, and angry. Voter turnout has improved, the Greens were the clear winners in many places, and the climate crisis is taking centre-stage at last. At first glance the AfD appears to have lost some of its momentum. But this is only true if one ignores their successes in the former East German states – sadly, that is impossible to do.
On Sunday, I took my three-year-old son to a nearby elementary school to vote. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to watch as I cast my vote, but thankfully we were allowed to play in the schoolyard afterwards. In Weißensee, the suburb in Berlin that I call home, the Greens lead with 28 per cent, followed by the CDU with 15 per cent, Die Linke with 14 per cent and the SPD with 12 per cent. The AfD attracted just 10 per cent of the vote. As a Berliner, I’m happy that most of my fellow citizens have proved to be responsible Europeans.
I was born and raised in Dresden but I’ve lived in Berlin for the last 13 years. And over the years, I’ve come to genuinely care for this bustling metropolis. In local council elections held parallel to the European elections the Greens (20.4 per cent) emerged as the strongest faction for the first time ever. But here the CDU (18.3 per cent) was trailed closely by the AFD (17.1 per cent). That the SPD only managed to capture a mere 8.8 per cent of the vote is bitter but reflects their wider decline. The strength of the AfD in Berlin suggests that prosperity and an economic upturn alone are not an antidote to a resurgent Far-right.
As a Saxon, I am of course bitterly disappointed in the election results. In the European elections, the AfD emerged ahead of the CDU (23.0 percent) as the strongest party with 25.3 per cent. The message for Europe: We don’t want you but we’re happy to take your funding!
In Brandenburg, where I work, the result is similar, except that here the SPD was able to climb its way into the double-digits. Saxony and Brandenburg appear to be the strongholds of the AfD. Pundits will of course wheel out their tales of incorrigible Ossis again, but in fact this result reflects a trend that can be seen across Europe.
In autumn the state assemblies will be re-elected in both states. The outlook for the governing parties – SPD and CDU – could hardly be worse and building a coalition without the AfD will be extremely difficult. In Saxony, the temptation to work with the AfD could well be so great – especially if the election weakens Minister-President Kretschmer – that it will tear apart the CDU.
But a closer look at the local elections in both states paints a more diverse picture. In Brandenburg, the CDU and SPD are ahead of the AfD, which is probably more strongly represented in the state’s district assemblies, city councils, and community boards. But when open-minded democrats throw their hats in the ring at local elections, then they have a good chance of being elected. It is at the local level that citizens and elected officials actually know each other and must resolve their conflicts. Expertise and empathy rather than narrow-mindedness and hate speech are what is needed here.
And it is precisely for this reason that, as a scientist and an East German, I have my doubts as to whether the approach adopted by the governing parties for the socio-economic transformation of Lusatia will succeed as planned. Shortly before the elections, the Federal Cabinet confirmed that 20 billion euros would be earmarked for measures to support the coal exit and the transformation of the economy in Lusatia through to 2038 under the proposed Structural Adjustment Act (Strukturstärkungsgesetz). But in each of the region’s seven counties, the AfD – a party which denies climate change and demonizes the coal exit – come out on top. In Jänschwalde in Brandenburg, where one of the power plants is located, the AfD won 36 per cent of the vote in local elections – more than CDU and SPD together.
Clearly, there is little love here for the regional development policies developed under the SPD and CDU. The coal exit – as necessary as it may be – has rekindled old fears that are rooted in the experiences of the 1990s, when thousands of industry jobs were slashed as the region endured a swift and painful transition to a market economy. Decades later, the people of this region are still searching for an identity that is not tied to coal.
Railways, roads, and scientific institutions furnished with billions of euros in funding are not enough. This approach will neither empower the region’s most active and innovative citizens, nor will it comfort those more timid. Instead, an approach is needed that acknowledges the biographies of citizens and empowers them to shape their own lives.
The development of a new vision for the region is an opportunity to actively involve citizens in forging their futures. But, as our research shows, states and towns are reluctant to take an active role in this process because their focus is on the billions of euros in federal funding rather than on their citizens. Ireland has shown how community meetings build communities of responsibility. And this is precisely what is needed here. There is still enough time to change tack – and still enough money on the table. The dilemma we face is this: the longer it takes to empower citizens to act in their own interests, the more often they will vote for the AfD out of protest or as a matter of conviction.
In Görlitz, a second ballot is to be held to determine the town’s mayor. Franziska Schubert, a young, East German Green, did well to win 27 per cent of the vote in the first round, finishing third behind the candidates for the AfD and the CDU. For the first time, the AfD could hold the mayoral office in a larger town. That outcome would be disastrous outcome for Görlitz, a bustling and diverse university town close to the border, where young creatives – many with a strong regional identies – are using locations like the Kühlhaus to pioneer new forms of living and working. But their willingness to tread new ground is seldom rewarded by the town’s ageing and conservative majority.
My doubts about this election are based on the observation that too many people born between the 1970s and the 1990s turned their backs on the rural peripheries of the former East German states. They left either with their parents or for their own good reasons. Not everyone left, of course, and many of the region’s most active citizens are from this generation.
But most have put down new roots in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Dresden – or, like me, in my Berlin “bubble”. Their voices and votes are missing in the former East German states, resulting in a rifts between urban centres and rural areas as well as between the generations. There are many among this younger generation who wish to re-establish their links to their place of birth. But the election results convey a fatal message to them: We need you, but we do not want you if you are different from us.