Germany’s Christian Democrats won a decisive victory in elections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, in a huge boost for their leader Armin Laschet and his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in September.
The CDU was able to hold off a strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had sought to capitalise on widespread public discontent over the Covid-19 lockdown.
It was a sobering night for the Greens, who have been riding high in the polls since naming the popular MP Annalena Baerbock as their first candidate for chancellor in April. They had hoped for a breakthrough but scored only 6.1 per cent.
Projections by German public broadcaster ARD, traditionally seen as an accurate predictor of final results, put the Christian Democratic Union on 37.0 per cent, up more than 6 points on the state’s last elections in 2016. The AfD trailed at 20.9 per cent, down 3.4 percentage points on its 2016 result.
The projections, based on exit polls, suggest that the current coalition of CDU, Social Democrats and Greens, led by the CDU’s Reiner Haseloff, will have enough seats in the regional parliament to continue in power. But the CDU could also choose to form a partnership with the SPD and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
“I have been prime minister for ten years, and people know me, they know . . . what I stand for,” Haseloff, a 67-year-old former academic, told ARD. “I think this credibility was a decisive factor.”
He also thanked voters for “building a clear firewall against the far-right” by supporting the centre-right CDU rather than the AfD.
Some polls prior to the election had suggested the AfD could beat the CDU into the second place. Even if that happened, however, it would not be in a position to form a government as no other party is willing to form a coalition with it.
The AfD’s stunning result in 2016, when it won nearly a quarter of the vote, reflected the public backlash against Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policies and the influx into Germany of more than a million asylum-seekers, most of them from the Middle East, north Africa and Afghanistan.
It was a depressing night for the Social Democrats, junior partner in Merkel’s grand coalition government, who saw their share of the vote shrink 1.1 points to 8.3 per cent — one of its worst results in postwar Germany. The Greens rose to 6.1 per cent, up 0.9 points on 2016.
“We increased our share of the vote, but not as much as we had hoped,” said Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for chancellor.
“This evening the Baerbock train derailed,” said Friedrich Merz, one of the CDU’s most prominent politicians.
The pro-business FDP garnered 6.4 per cent of the vote, up 1.5 points on 2016. The hard-left Die Linke, which has its roots in the former Communist Party that once governed East Germany, slumped to 11.2 per cent, down from 16.3 per cent five years ago.
Saxony-Anhalt is a small state with a voting-age population of only 1.8m. German reunification plunged it into an economic depression from which it is still recovering, and the population has shrunk by 24 per cent since 1990 as young people drifted westwards in search of better jobs.
The state also faces more economic upheaval in coming decades as Germany moves to shut down its lignite mines — a big employer in Saxony-Anhalt — as part of efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The result was a victory for Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, who will stand as the joint chancellor candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU in September’s federal election, which will mark the end of Angela Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor.
The CDU slumped in the polls earlier this year, hit by public frustration at the slow pace of the vaccination campaign, and a corruption scandal involving a clutch of Christian Democrat MPs.
There have also been doubts about Laschet’s ability to win the Bundestag election which were exploited by the Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder, who sought himself to be named the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate, triggering a bitter power struggle. Laschet will be hoping that the decisive result in Saxony-Anhalt finally dispels those doubts.