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 ‘CDU in weak position’: Merkel’s conservatives face crucial test in Germany’s regional elections

Angela Merkel's conservatives could face a far-right upset at key state polls on Sunday, the last big test of Germany's political mood before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.

 'CDU in weak position': Merkel's conservatives face crucial test in Germany's regional elections
Residents enjoying the sun in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Peter Endig

Surveys have placed the extreme-right AfD neck-and-neck with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, with a recent poll by the Bild daily even predicting the anti-immigration party will – for the first time – win a regional vote.

Victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow for the conservatives just four months ahead of Germany’s national election on September 26th, and could further weaken the already fragile standing of Merkel’s would-be successor Armin Laschet.

“The CDU is in a relatively weak position in the polls, as is Laschet,” said political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University.

“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,” Funke said.

Merkel’s party has been a dominant force in Saxony-Anhalt for decades, topping all but one edition of state elections there since reunification in
1990.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

In 2016, the CDU scooped 30 percent, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. The AfD won 24 percent.

But the conservatives have taken a hammering in the polls as Merkel prepares to bow out, hurt by anger over the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

They are also reeling from a very public tug of war for the post of chancellor candidate between CDU chief Laschet and Markus Soeder, head of the smaller Bavarian sister party CSU.

Laschet, who prevailed in that battle but has since suffered dismal public approval ratings, faces his first real test in Sunday’s election.

‘Rude awakening’ 

Even if the AfD wins the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, the party will not be able to govern as all the other parties have ruled out forming an alliance with it.

But a win for the far-right party would still be a “rude awakening” for the CDU, as Laschet put it during an appearance on the campaign trail in Magdeburg last week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a press conference in the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on May 21st, 2021. Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP

Although support nationally has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent for the AfD in recent months, in Saxony-Anhalt – as in other former East German states – the party has long had a strong base of support.

Its recent move to style itself as the party bashing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, attracting support beyond its core base of anti-immigration voters.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Losing to the AfD, whose leading candidate in the region is a relative unknown nationally, would be, as Spiegel magazine puts it, “a disaster” for
Laschet.

“Laschet urgently needs a success to rally the Union behind him for the national election campaign,” said the magazine.

“The last thing he would need is a renewed debate about the AfD within his party, which would become unstoppable in case of an election defeat in Saxony-Anhalt.”

READ ALSO: Meet Armin Laschet, the king of comebacks grasping for Merkel’s throne

‘Momentum from Berlin’

Meanwhile, the Greens, who are vying for top place nationally against Merkel’s conservatives, could also draw votes away from the CDU in
Saxony-Anhalt.

The party, which has traditionally struggled in the former East Germany, looks set to double its share of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt from 5 percent in 2016 to around 10 percent this time.

“It has been a very exciting election campaign for the Greens,” Sebastian Striegel, co-chair of the party in Sachsen-Anhalt, told AFP.

The party has benefited from “a lot of momentum from Berlin” with the nomination of chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock, according to Striegel.

The latest survey for Der Spiegel of who Germans would like to see as their next chancellor has Baerbock in the lead on 25 percent, with Laschet lagging behind on 22 percent.

 By Femke COLBORNE

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POLITICS

Civil servants ‘getting burnout’ over energy crisis, says German minister

Public sector workers trying to tackle Germany's ongoing energy crisis are suffering from illness and burnout, Economics Minister Robert Habeck has said.

Civil servants 'getting burnout' over energy crisis, says German minister

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed economic turmoil in Europe, placing Germany’s new coalition government under pressure to firefight multiple crises.

Perhaps the largest of these is the energy crisis, which has prompted fears of gas shortages in the winter months and seen prices for fossil fuels soar for both households and businesses.

According to Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, the staff at his ministry – who are charged with tackling the energy crisis – are struggling to cope with the extraordinary pressure that they have been under in recent months. 

“People, at some point they have to sleep and eat too,” the Green politician said at a congress of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) in Berlin. “It’s not bullshit I’m talking now: people get sick. They have burnout, they get tinnitus. They can’t take it anymore.”

READ ALSO:

In the last nine months alone, the Economics Ministry has produced 20 laws and 28 ordinances, Habeck revealed. He said this was likely more than the ministry produced over the entirety of the previous four-year legislature. 

Highlighting the strain that his staff were under, Habeck explained that it was always the same people in charge in drafting new laws in the battle to secure the energy supply.

To say that the Tourism Ministry could help restructure the electricity market would be like “telling the artist who made the sculptures that he can be the president of the Federation of German Industries,” the Green politician added. 

Batting off criticism that the ministry had occasionally been slow to act, Habeck said: “Of course you could say, ‘why didn’t you do the regulation a week earlier’. But it’s not because people are sleeping, it’s because there is a limit to their physical capacity.”

Gas levy criticism 

Germany has had to cope with an ever intensifying energy emergency over the past few months, culminating in Russia reducing supplies and then turning off gas deliveries via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline entirely in September. 

Most recently, the government took steps to nationalise its largest gas supplier – Uniper – in a move to prevent the collapse of the country’s energy infrastructure. Uniper has suffered losses of billions of euros this year due to the costs involved in replacing cheap Russian gas supplies at short notice. 

Habeck, who has appeared increasingly world-weary and exhausted in recent months, has faced sharp criticism for a number of decisions made during the crisis. 

Most controversially, his decision to implement a gas levy to bail out major energy companies has been met with consternation from both the opposition and the Greens’ coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD). 

On Friday, SPD leader Lars Klingbeil reiterated concerns about the fairness of the gas levy at a time when many are struggling to pay their energy bills.

SPD leader Lars Klingbeil

SPD leader Lars Klingbeil speaks to the press during the ARD Summer Interview in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

In a situation where the government is facing multiple decisions in a short space of time, ministers also require the strength to “reconsider and correct their path”, Klingbeil told RND.

“(The gas levy) is about supporting the gas supply infrastructure,” he added. “However, this must be done fairly.”

In spite of the nationalisation of Uniper, Habeck has confirmed that the gas levy – which adds 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour of energy onto gas bills – will still be introduced on October 1st.

However, on Thursday he announced that there would be changes to Energy Security Act to ensure that only companies who needed the bailout would benefit from the levy.

According to the ministry, the changes are set to be passed by the cabinet on September 28th.

READ ALSO: Germany to push ahead with gas levy plans

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