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German Far Right Makes Election Gains, but Falls Short of Victory

BERLIN — A far-right party made significant gains Sunday in two closely watched state elections, snapping at the heels of parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition and highlighting a growing political divide between the country’s East and West, initial returns showed.

Ms. Merkel’s party and one of her coalition partners won enough support to beat back the Alternative for Germany, the far-right group known by its German initials, AfD. That robbed it of what would have been a powerful symbolic victory: the chance to emerge as the strongest force in one of the country’s 16 states.

But both governing parties suffered heavy losses to the AfD in two states that were once in the Communist East of Germany, which could further weaken faith in her government at a time when the German economy is starting to slow.

The results highlight a deep division between what was once East Germany and the rest of the country, which the AfD both tapped into and exacerbated during the campaign.

The results also confirm the continuing fragmentation of Germany’s postwar political system, which for decades was characterized by two dominant mainstream parties on left and right.

In both states where the elections were held, the other political parties have ruled out cooperating with the Alternative for Germany, consigning the party to the opposition. It earned 28 percent of the vote in Saxony and 24 percent in neighboring Brandenburg, making gains of 18 and 12 points respectively from the previous election in 2014.

What saved mainstream parties from losing outright to the AfD may have been the urgency with which their candidates appealed to voters in the final run-up to the election. Turnout surged as a result, helping the mainstream parties retain their leads.

In Saxony, exit polls showed Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union getting more than 32 percent of the vote. In Brandenburg, her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, emerged as the strongest party, although by a more narrow margin. They have about 26 percent of the vote, initial projections showed.

After the initial returns were announced Sunday, Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, told reporters: “We know that it counts who is the strongest party, who will present the governor, who will form the government. And we succeeded in doing that.”

National elections are not scheduled until 2021, and Ms. Merkel has said she intends to serve out her full term. But the government remains unpopular, despite a recent study showing it had carried out more than half of its proposed agenda since taking office.

In both Brandenburg and Saxony, the Alternative for Germany ran a campaign that focused on the resentment among voters over promises made to states that were once part of East Germany by politicians of the mainstream parties that were not kept. Many East Germans have a sense that they are not being treated equally to Germans in the former West.

“Voters feel left behind — and they were left behind,” said Andreas Kalbitz, 46, the party’s leader in Brandenburg, who celebrated the outcome on Sunday as a “fantastic result.”

“Everything that is now being called for could have been implemented by those in government long ago,” Mr. Kalbitz said.

Support for far-right parties in the region has long existed, but it was once marginal, said Hajo Funke, a professor of political science at Free University of Berlin who spent weeks traveling the region before the vote. The Alternative for Germany managed to win support for its platforms, despite its nationalist tendencies and leaders’ ties to right-wing extremists, by tapping into the simmering resentment, he said.

Voters, Mr. Funke said, “have a subliminal distance to democracy stemming from the frustration at how they have been treated and the feeling of being second-class citizens.”

Days before the election, reports emerged that Mr. Kalbitz took part in a neo-Nazi march in Athens in 2007 along with 13 other far-right extremists from Germany, including a leading member of the extremist National Democratic Party.

But that did not appear to harm the AfD with voters. Exit polls suggested the surge in the support for the party resulted from mobilizing nonvoters and drawing votes from Ms. Merkel’s party.

In Brandenburg, where the Social Democrats have been in power since 1990, the far-right party campaigned on security issues, promising to increase the number of police officers and slash funds for left-leaning organizations or immigration projects.

Although immigrants make up less than 5 percent of the state’s population of about 2.5 million, the far right has successfully campaigned on fears that the government spends more money on housing and integrating newcomers than it does on German taxpayers.

Similar promises also played well in Saxony, which is larger and more prosperous. Immigrants there account for less than 5 percent of the population. But if not for them, the population of Saxony, a state of four million inhabitants, would have shrunk 2 percent from 2012 to 2018, according to government figures.

With roughly a quarter of the seats now held by a party consigned to opposition, governing could require new alliances with possibly three or even four partners.

That scenario might allow the Alternative for Germany to play the victim and buttress its depiction of itself being marginalized by the traditional parties, or as the AfD likes to put it, “the establishment.”

It was not only the far right that made gains in the elections.

The pro-refugee liberal Greens, who cast themselves as the alternative to the Alternative for Germany and have emerged as the second-most popular party in West Germany, also saw modest increases in both states.

The party could emerge as kingmaker when it comes to forming a state government — a sea change from five years ago when it squeaked into the legislature in each state.

Source: NYT > World News

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