Photographer: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Germany's Election Battlegrounds: Swings, Strongholds and Shocks

  • Pinneberg outside Hamburg has always backed winning party
  • Afd targeting districts in east, former industrial cities

Across Germany, the campaigning is over for Sunday’s election. It’s not just a single national contest: Germans cast two votes, the first for one of 299 directly elected members of the Bundestag from their local district, and the second for a party.

So where can Chancellor Angela Merkel be sure of the most support? Where might the populist Alternative for Germany hope to make inroads? Here are some of the places to watch.

The Bellwether

Pinneberg, on a commuter rail line on the northwest outskirts of Hamburg, isn’t a particularly remarkable place, but it has a remarkable electoral record: Ever since Germany’s current voting system was first used in 1953, the district has chosen a member of the Bundestag from the party that’s gone on to lead the new government. That’s not to say it’s Germany in miniature: The Social Democrats regularly do better than their national performance. But the Christian Democrats’ result in Pinneberg tends to mirror pretty closely how they poll across Germany as a whole; in two of the past four elections, there’s only been a 0.1 percentage-point difference between the CDU candidate’s score in the district and the national share for Merkel’s bloc.

Conservative Heartland

There’s no doubting where Merkel’s CDU polls most strongly: Cloppenburg-Vechta, amid the featureless agricultural landscape of northwest Germany. In 2013, the Christian Democrat in the district took 66.3 percent of the first vote -- the one for a person rather than a party. That was the highest score anywhere in the country, 5.6 points more than the next highest-scoring CDU candidate. In 2009, it was 62.3 percent, 7.7 points better than anywhere else.

The Christian Democrats have won in Cloppenburg ever since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949. It’s a conservative, strongly Roman Catholic area that’s seen an influx of ethnic-German immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- demographics reflected in an unusually high birth rate.

The Alternative Politics

Berlin is (mostly) different. And nowhere is it more different than in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, covering some of the most “in” districts in both the east and the west of the once divided capital. Hans-Christian Stroebele has held the seat for the Greens since 2002, the only member of the party ever to be directly elected to the Bundestag, rather than from the party list.

Conversely, and by no means coincidentally, this was the district where the CDU did worst in both 2009 and 2013. Last time, the CDU score of 13.7 percent was 8.9 points lower than anywhere else -- in fact, the six worst results for Merkel’s party were all in Berlin. Stroebele isn’t running this time, making this seat one to watch.

Berlin, by the way, also provided the anti-capitalist Left party with its best results last time: It took about 40 percent of the vote in Treptow-Koepenick -- the seat of the party’s former parliamentary leader, Gregor Gysi -- as well as in Lichtenberg and Marzahn-Hellersdorf. In total, Left candidates triumphed in four districts, all in former East Berlin.

Even so, there is one corner of the capital that is mainstream Germany: Reinickendorf in the north reflected the national vote share most closely in 2013, according to a study by the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. Located in West Berlin when the capital was divided during the Cold War, the district is demographically very close to Germany as a whole.

The Populist Challenge

Of course, the Greens and the Left aren’t the only alternative to the major-party fare on offer in Germany. Having contested the 2013 vote essentially as a movement opposed to the euro, the Alternative for Germany has morphed into the sort of right-wing populist, anti-migrant party that’s enjoyed electoral success in neighboring countries. Polls in the final weeks of the campaign showed AfD support nationally creeping up to 10 percent and beyond.

An indication of the sort of area where the AfD is likely to do well Sunday comes from a regional vote in May in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. The party achieved its best result in Gelsenkirchen, scoring more than 15 percent in one constituency. The city is now perhaps best known as the home of the Schalke soccer club.

What was once a coalmining and heavy-industry hub that helped fuel the postwar West German economic miracle has an unemployment rate more than twice the national average, and more than one in six of the population is non-German. This may be bad news for the Social Democrats: Gelsenkirchen saw their best result in the 2013 national election, 44.1 percent. SPD leader Martin Schulz campaigned there just four days before the election.

Pforzheim in southwest Germany, once famed for its jewelry and watchmaking, but now with a large proportion of migrants, is another AfD target. The populists topped the poll there in last year’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state election.

Yet it’s eastern Germany where the AfD achieves its most spectacular results. The party targeted Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on the Baltic Sea coast, where a local poll in June showed it getting 22 percent of the vote, up a touch on last year’s state election.

The AfD is even attempting to unseat Merkel in her own district, Vorpommern-Ruegen, which includes the medieval trading cities of Stralsund and Greifswald. AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, meanwhile, is running east of Berlin in the Frankfurt-on-Oder district, directly taking on pro-immigration CDU lawmaker Martin Patzelt.

One-Party State

Merkel’s Christian Democrats don’t contest elections in Bavaria, leaving the field to their allies in the Christian Social Union. The CSU won every district in Bavaria in 2013, as it did four years earlier. But while CSU support topped 60 percent in nine of the state’s 45 constituencies, the big cities were a little more rebellious, and the party even dipped below the 40 percent mark in Nuremberg North. Merkel will be counting on the homeland of BMW to help deliver a fourth term for her on Sunday.

— With assistance by Adrian Leung, and Samuel Dodge

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