Once fought over by Prussian kings and a French emperor, the state of Saxony is now at the center of a battle over Germany’s political future.
Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is set on winning its first seats in a state parliament when Saxony goes to the polls in August, after scoring its highest support in the region in European elections with 10.1 percent of the vote.
The party -- formed last year to oppose the euro and bailouts stemming from Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis -- is finding an audience in Saxony, and elsewhere along the eastern border, with a broader platform that includes fighting crime. With backing coming primarily at the expense of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the AfD may weaken the party that’s ruled Europe’s biggest economy for 45 of the last 65 years and force Merkel to reconsider her rejection of alliances with the AfD.
“AfD demands for tougher police controls certainly resonate with voters here,” said Albrecht Gubsch, the 48-year-old independent mayor of Duerrhennersdorf.
The fairy-tale village of half-timbered houses located five kilometers (three miles) from the Czech border is a stronghold for the AfD, with the party taking 26.8 percent of the town’s European Parliament vote, its best showing in any community in Germany. Nationwide it won 7 percent of the ballot.
The AfD is one of several protest parties across the region that racked up gains in last month’s European ballot. France’s National Front, which says the country has too many immigrants and a lenient penal system, and the U.K. Independence Party, which aims to pull out of the European Union, received the most votes in their respective countries.
“The rise of extremist and populist parties is a challenge to all established parties, whether in government or not,” said Famke Krumbmueller, a London-based European affairs analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “It forces them to re-evaluate their approach toward the EU and other issues, such as immigration for example, and to provide attractive alternatives.”
Crime, crystal meth in schools and anger over the euro-area bailouts rankle many in Duerrhennersdorf, a locale of 1,000 residents built along a burbling brook surrounded by fields that slope up to forests of spruce, maple and beech, according to Gubsch, who has run the town about 250 kilometers southeast of Berlin for nearly 25 years.
“We have simply gotten used to a feeling of insecurity and the fear that something can happen to you at any time,” Andrea Guenther, a 51-year-old employee at a garden center in the town, said as she cut and tied bouquets of flowers. “The euro? What should I say? It seems to make prices rise and I would much rather have the D-mark back.”
Down the road, Marina Noack, chatting as she sold cakes and bread at the Heidorn bakery founded in 1897, said that break-ins have become so common that “you have to barricade yourself in at home.”
“Many people are moving away because of the crime and the fear that everything they have built up could be stolen overnight,” said Noack, 55.
The number of cars stolen along Saxony’s eastern and southeastern borders rose 12 percent in 2013 to 832 vehicles and more than half of the thieves caught were foreigners, according to police data. Domestic burglaries and thefts in Saxony last year climbed 4.1 percent to 137,382 cases. The Federal Interior Ministry said in a report in June that the rise in such crime nationwide is largely the work of gangs from eastern and south-eastern Europe.
“More police” is a top issue for us in Saxony, Thomas Hartung, the AfD’s deputy chairman for the state, said in an interview. “Our success is an outcry by voters who feel they’re being sneered at by arrogant European functionaries.”
The size of the state’s police force has declined 21 percent in the last four years to 11,000 officers as a result of budgetary constraints in the state of 4 million inhabitants. With the AfD promising to reverse that trend, state premier Stanislaw Tillich, of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has made his own vow to strengthen the region’s police presence.
With an election on Aug. 31, Saxony -- which has been fought over throughout its history by rulers such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte -- will be the second test of the AfD’s ability to win seats in a state after it failed in the western region of Hesse in 2013. Neighbors Thuringia and Brandenburg follow two weeks later with their own parliamentary ballots.
The CDU’s support in Saxony is at 42 percent and the AfD’s at 8 percent, according to a Forsa poll published June 20. Tillich’s current coalition partner in the state, the Free Democrats, is at 3 percent and thus may not reach the threshold of 5 percent needed in Germany to enter a state assembly or the federal parliament.
In the European election on May 25, the AfD gained seats on its first try and later allied in the EU legislature with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, a slap at Merkel as she lobbies for Britain to stay in the EU. The AfD, which narrowly failed to win seats in Germany’s general election last year after getting 4.7 percent of the vote, is currently at 6 percent to 7 percent in nationwide polls.
So far, Merkel’s weapon to fight the AfD is to ostracize it. She rules out allying with the party and CDU leaders like Volker Kauder, who heads the Christian Democratic bloc in the national parliament in Berlin, say they won’t take part in TV discussions with AfD members.
“The CDU will only have a real problem with the AfD if they talk to them and make them socially respectable,” Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling company, said in a phone interview. “The CDU would be crazy to enter into a coalition with the AfD and it would damage them.”
Not everyone agrees and some CDU leaders are backing the opposite tactic. Tillich, while critical of the AfD, hasn’t ruled out a coalition with the party, nor has the CDU opposition candidate in Brandenburg, Michael Schierack. This month, the first CDU-AfD coalition was created at the local level in Elbe-Elster county in eastern Brandenburg.
“We have gangs sending spies to observe houses and then mark them with secret signs showing that people are away during the day or that there are things to steal,” said Ronny Laugks, a 47-year-old resident of Baerenklau, a Brandenburg town with 400 residents about 10 kilometers from the Polish border. “It’s getting worse, so nobody should be surprised that more people here are voting for the AfD.”