Merkel’s conservatives win last state vote before general election

Angela Merkel's conservatives scored a convincing win at state elections in Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday, seeing off a threat from the far-right AfD in the final regional poll before the first election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.

Merkel's conservatives win last state vote before general election
CDU supporters react to the results in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/DPA

The CDU under new party chief Armin Laschet won between 35 and 36 percent of the vote, exit polls showed, with the anti-immigration party on between 22.5 and 23.5 percent.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s CDU faces final test as more Germans vote in regional elections

Pollsters had foreseen a neck-and-neck race between the CDU and the AfD,  with one survey for the Bild daily even predicting the far-right party would  win a state poll for the first time.

Saxony-Anhalt is one of Germany’s smallest states with a population of just  2.2 million, but Sunday’s clear victory gives the conservatives and their new  leader Armin Laschet a big boost in the run-up to Germany’s national election on September 26th.

“This is essentially a sensationally good result,” CDU general secretary  Paul Ziemiak said.

“CDU has won this eleciton clearly. Today is a good day.”

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.

‘Clear profile’

But the AfD established a strong foothold there in 2016, having capitalised  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.

Although support for the AfD at the national level has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent in recent months, the party continues to hold its own in the former East German states.

Nevertheless, the party has failed to increase its share of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, despite recent moves to attract voters by styling itself as the  party bashing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic.

The result is also a huge boost for Armin Laschet, who was nominated as the  conservative chancellor candidate in April but had faced a series of setbacks as Merkel prepares to bow out.

Support for the CDU had plummeted earlier in the year amid anger over the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

At Germany’s last regional elections in March — in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg — the CDU suffered its worst ever results in both states.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s Conservatives suffer heavy losses in two German state elections

But the mood has picked up in Germany in recent weeks with the country’s vaccination campaign gathering pace and large parts of the country reopening after months of shutdowns.

Laschet has promised to maintain the CDU as the “force of the political middle ground”.

Ziemiak credited Laschet for the strong showing Sunday, underlining his  participation in the campaign there along with Saxony-Anhalt’s state premier Reiner Haseloff.

The result was “the largest increase (in vote share) in a state election since the victory of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017” — a win that Laschet had scooped for the CDU at that time.

Laschet, who is state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, had succeeded in attracting voters by standing for “unity and a clear profile” on major structural changes in the region, said Ziemiak.

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EU ministers urge unity after Germany’s energy ‘bazooka’

EU finance ministers on Monday pleaded for unity after Germany announced a €200 billion plan to help German households and businesses pay for high energy prices, amid accusations that the EU's biggest economy was acting alone.

EU ministers urge unity after Germany's energy 'bazooka'

Europe is struggling with historically high energy prices as it faces an early autumn cold snap and a coming winter almost certainly to be endured without crucial Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine.

Many EU countries have announced national programmes to shield consumers from the high prices. But Germany went the furthest on Friday when it announced its mammoth plan, which will see help pouring to Germans for two years.

Arriving to talk with his eurozone counterparts, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner insisted the spending was “proportionate” to the size of Germany’s economy and said his goal was to use as little of the money as possible.

READ ALSO: Germany to spend €200 billion to cap soaring energy costs

But Germany’s largesse rankled several EU capitals, some of which feared their industries could take severe blows while Germany’s sits protected, deforming the EU’s single market.

Outgoing Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has slammed Berlin for its lack of solidarity and coordination with EU partners.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, without directly criticizing Berlin, called on partners to agree a common strategy against the price shock and for countries to refrain from going it alone.

“The more this strategy is coordinated, united, the better it is for all of us,” he said.

Risk to ‘European unity’

Others pointed to the unprecedented solidarity shown in the Covid-19 crisis in which the 27 EU nations, against all expectations, approved a jointly financed €750 billion recovery plan.

“Solidarity is not only on the German shoulders, I think this is something that we have to deliver at European level,” said EU economics affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni.

“We have very good examples from the previous crisis on how solidarity can react to a crisis and also reassure financial markets. I think that this is our goal,” he said.

While a Covid-style recovery plan is not in the cards for now, Le Maire said €200 billion in loans and €20 billion in aid should be devoted to REPowerEU, a programme to help countries break their dependence on Russian gas.

READ ALSO: Will Germany set a gas price cap – and how would it work?

Bruegel, a highly influential think tank in Brussels, called the German plan a spending “bazooka” that many EU countries were unable to match, creating a potential source of animosity.

“If the German gas price brake gives German business a much better chance to survive the crisis than, say, Italian business, economic divergences in the EU could be deepened, and European unity on Russia undermined,” it said in a blog.