, BERLIN, Germany, Sep 18 – German voters went to the polls Sunday in Berlin regional elections with the anti-immigration AfD party hoping to capitalise on anger against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany has mobilised xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiment to win seats in nine of the country’s 16 state assemblies and is especially popular in the ex-communist east.
Fresh gains for the AfD particularly in hip and multicultural Berlin, where it has been polling up to 14 percent would spell another setback for Merkel, a year ahead of national elections.
It would prove that the protest party “doesn’t just benefit from discontent in rural areas but can establish itself … in a city of millions that is known for its open lifestyle,” said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.
Germany took in one million asylum seekers last year, and over 70,000 of them came to Berlin, with many housed in the cavernous hangars of the Nazi-built former Tempelhof airport, once the hub for the Cold War-era Berlin airlift.
Merkel who was booed this week by right-wing activists shouting “get lost” later conceded it was hard to reach the “protest voters” who have turned their backs on mainstream parties.
The AfD, breaking a taboo in post-war German politics, has an openly anti-immigration platform, similar to France’s National Front or far-right populists in Austria and the Netherlands.
Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller of the Social Democrats (SPD) dramatically warned on the eve of the election that a strong AfD result would be “seen throughout the world as a sign of the resurgence of the right and of Nazis in Germany”.
Polls in Berlin opened at 0600 GMT and were to close at 1600 GMT, with some 2.5 million eligible voters to chose a new assembly. With sunny skies, turnout around noon looked to be higher than in 2011, when it reached 60 percent.
Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have a national majority but in the city-state of Berlin they serve as junior coalition partner to Mueller’s SPD, traditionally the strongest party in the city of 3.5 million.
As Mueller has rejected a new coalition with the CDU, Merkel’s party may be cast out of the Berlin government altogether with the SPD seen likely to team up with the ecologist Greens and the far-left Die Linke party.
This would heap further pressure on Merkel “to explain her political strategy”, said Gero Neugebauer of Berlin’s Free University.
“The more fearful within her party might be increasingly scared of losing power in 2017,” he told the Handelsblatt business daily.
Another analyst, Kai Arzheimer of Mainz University, also predicted tensions would rise between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU, but he stressed the CDU was unlikely to change its top candidate, Merkel.
“To ask this question one year before federal elections would be suicidal, especially since in the CDU there is no credible successor,” he said.
‘Poor but sexy’
In Berlin a city famously dubbed “poor but sexy” by its previous mayor, bon vivant Klaus Wowereit the election campaign was dominated not just by migrant policies but also widespread frustration over poor public services.
With little industry and an above-national average jobless rate of 10 percent, Europe’s techno party capital is chronically broke and known for its crumbling schools, late trains and shambolic city offices.
Often seen as an amusingly chaotic exception in otherwise orderly and punctual Germany, Berlin became a national laughing stock for a grand BER airport project that is now five years behind schedule and three times over budget.
In another debacle, thousands of refugees were left waiting for days and weeks last year at Berlin’s then hopelessly overwhelmed Lageso central migrant registration centre, with many forced to sleep in the dirt outside.
Casting his ballot early on Sunday, police officer Tobias Ludley, 27, said he worried about Berlin’s cash-strapped public services, as well as its “little building site”, the BER.
But he also voiced concern about the AfD, a party he labelled “the wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
“The AfD is appealing to people who otherwise wouldn’t vote, the protest voters,” he said, worried that the party could gain ground in a city which was normally “a shining example of multiculturalism”.
Another voter, Franziska Ersil, 38, who works in advertising, agreed that “many big-city problems just aren’t being solved”.
“We worry about education, a housing shortage, and the fact that they just can’t get a handle on the refugee crisis… that a multicultural city like Berlin can’t adequately welcome, house and integrate them.”