Polls open in key German state election test for Merkel’s party

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) speaks at the Chancellery during a press conference after an online meeting with state premiers to discuss how to proceed with the Astrazeneca vaccine. Merkel justified the new age restrictions for Astrazeneca's drug in light of the trust in Corona vaccines Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP POOL/dpa
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) speaks at the Chancellery during a press conference after an online meeting with state premiers to discuss how to proceed with the Astrazeneca vaccine. Merkel justified the new age restrictions for Astrazeneca's drug in light of the trust in Corona vaccines Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP POOL/dpa

Polls in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt opened on Sunday with the election representing the last major test of the political mood in the country before September’s national ballot.

State premier Reiner Haseloff, of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), and his wife cast their votes in the town hall in Wittenberg, wearing masks and adhering to social distancing rules.

Haseloff has been in power since 2011 and is expected to win a third term.

A string of polls had pointed to a neck-and-neck race between Angela Merkel’s CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the run-up to Sunday’s election.

But recent voter surveys have shown the CDU pulling ahead in the state, which is part of a series of regional elections this year building to the September 26 national poll.

A win for the CDU in Saxony-Anhalt would represent a boost to Armin Laschet, who has struggled to gain political momentum since he was selected in April to head up the party’s September national election campaign as its chancellor candidate.

The September election will also mark the beginning of the post-Merkel era, with the German leader exiting the political stage following the election, after 16 years in power.

Recent opinion polls project the CDU in Saxony Anhalt under Haseloff to garner about 29 per cent in Sunday’s vote.

The AfD had hoped it might emerge as the biggest parliamentary bloc in the Saxony-Anhalt election after winning more than 30 per cent of the vote in parts of the state in the last election in 2016.

Formed in 2013, the AfD has regularly scored better in elections in the eastern part of the nation than the west partly because of what many in the former communist east perceive as the failure of German unification to meet their expectations of change.

Laschet this week vigorously ruled out working with the AfD, saying any CDU member planning to approach the AfD “can leave the CDU.”

But polls have pointed to AfD support having dropped from their state-wide result in the 2016 election of 24.3 per cent, perhaps hurt by the party having been engulfed by factional warfare between its moderate forces and its more extremist members.

This, however, is more than double what opinion polls show as the AfD’s current national support.

Saxony-Anhalt is also home to major parts of Germany’s cultural heritage, including sites marking the earlier days of the influential Bauhaus art and design movement as well as key moments for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

However, the exodus of younger people seeking opportunities outside Saxony-Anhalt has meant the state has one of the oldest populations in the country, many of whom back the AfD.

But the AfD’s slide in support raises the prospect of Haseloff returning to power for a third term at the head of his three-party coalition, including the centre-left SPD and the environmental Greens or possibly a new alliance with the SPD and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The fall in new coronavirus infections and an acceleration in the vaccination roll-out are also likely to have helped Haseloff’s CDU.
The CDU’s current support is about in line with the 29.8-per-cent vote it scored in the 2016 election.

In addition, Sunday’s vote is likely to be a major test of the Greens’ move to back Annalena Baerbock as their chancellor candidate for September.
The party is seen as having a strong shot in emerging as the strongest force in the September contest.

Voter surveys have pointed to the Greens in Saxony-Anhalt making strong gains from the 5.2 per cent the party secured in 2016.

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