East Germany’s rural areas: What shapes the election campaign in the East


Reportage

Status: 23.09.2021 5:49 p.m.

In the structurally weak regions of eastern Germany, the AfD achieved its best results in the 2017 federal election. The shock had an effect as far as Berlin. What has changed since then?

A report by Thomas Vorreyer, MDR

Monday, 5:28 p.m., Berlin Central Station: The CDU member of the Bundestag Sepp Müller gets on the ICE. In the morning he asked the SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz in the finance committee about the money laundering investigations. Now Müller wants to go to the meeting of his district association. Next stop: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt. 40 minutes driving time. Another 30 minutes and you would be in Leipzig. “Central in the midst of centers”, that’s how Wittenberg sees himself. “Suburb of Berlin,” says Müller. If it were up to him, the capital’s rent problem could continue for a while. Wittenberg has benefited from the move for years.

A part of the rural area draws new hope as a Berlin suburb. The vacancy rate is falling extremely, building land has become scarce, says Müller happily. The young people would revive the ailing club and cultural life. It didn’t look like it for long. Müller grew up a few kilometers away in Graefenhainichen. The coal mine there was closed in 1991. 15,000 employees lost their jobs, and the city ended up losing almost half of its population.

In Wittenberg, today’s CDU Prime Minister, Reiner Haseloff, once headed the employment office and administered “structural change without money,” as Müller calls it. He was still a child himself. In the 2017 federal election, which was also shaped by the so-called refugee crisis, the AfD then won 19.6 percent in Saxony-Anhalt. The AfD shock shook the republic from the east. Müller speaks of “given votes”. The Sachsen-Anhalt MPs of the AfD have not caught his eye since then.

East CDU relies on structural change billions

The black and red federal government addressed the problem with a cipher. One began to strive more for the “rural area”. In 2019, 40 billion euros in aid for structural change in the expiring lignite mining areas was decided. Money that goes not only to North Rhine-Westphalia but also to rural Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. A success for the CDU, enforced by Prime Ministers Haseloff and Armin Laschet, said Müller. Since 2020, the funding program for rural areas has also been geared towards the whole of Germany – and is thus receiving more attention.

The federal government also relieved the municipalities of costly accommodation benefits for social welfare recipients. Sports halls in the constituency were refurbished with federal funds. Now Müller hopes that Haseloff has prevailed a second time.

“Game Changer” for structurally weak regions in East Germany? Union Chancellor candidate Laschet wants to campaign for a new regulation of trade tax. Also present: the Saxon Prime Minister Kretschmer and his colleague from Saxony-Anhalt, Prime Minister Haseloff.

Image: REUTERS

Trade tax as a “game changer”?

At a press conference with Laschet on Monday, he announced that the CDU was in favor of a new regulation of the breakdown of trade tax. A complex process, the concern of which is easy to explain: Pay taxes where they are generated – and where municipalities finance roads, daycare centers and schools for companies and their employees. At the moment, many companies still pay their taxes at the administrative headquarters, which are often in West Germany.

Müller says that there has not yet been a majority in the CDU for this “game changer”. The idea is not found in the election manifesto either. In the meantime, he has to deal with smaller problems: He is currently looking for an English teacher for his son’s elementary school. He wants to have found two country doctors. Immigration does not yet close every gap.

The upswing of the SPD is even affecting the Mansfeld region

Two days later, Katrin Budde at least doesn’t have to look for her voters on the market square in Hettstedt. “Hopefully it will work,” one calls over to the SPD stand between belt buckles, cut flowers and bison sausage. While Sepp Müller has his direct mandate in Wittenberg safe, Budde could derive the constituency of Mansfeld – Südharz from the CDU. But only if the AfD doesn’t get in the way. In 2017, the party even got 23.9 percent of the second vote.

“Sometimes it takes a shock for all of Germany to attract attention,” says Budde. It came to Berlin via the state list. Her flyer lists the federal funds that she has since brought here: 160,000 euros for a permanent exhibition in the Novalis birthplace, 4.3 million for a small town library, 85 million for the environmental data center in Merseburg. Around 200 million euros in total. Money that flows mainly because she and her contacts are committed to it, says Budde.

The 52-year-old engineer was the strong woman of the SPD in Saxony-Anhalt for a long time – until the AfD struck here and the Social Democrats fell almost below ten percent in the state elections in 2016. A little later, the comrades from the Mansfeld region approached the Magdeburg woman: “The SPD is missing here, Katrin.” In the entire constituency, the party had fewer than 250 members and neither a member of the state parliament nor a member of the Bundestag.

The biggest problem is the mixture of all problems

What Budde, however, cannot procure either: a metropolis behind the mountains. Hettstedt is not a suburb of anyone. The region has the worst development prognosis in all of Saxony-Anhalt. To this day, no one has recovered from the sudden loss of the artificially pepped up GDR copper industry. There is a lack of teachers, doctors, broadband connections, reasonable public transport connections to the last village. And there is still a lack of jobs and the emigrated generations of 20 to 50-year-olds.

“The biggest problem is the mix of everything,” says Budde. With the structural change billions, new jobs urgently need to be created, in industry and in cultural tourism. After all, there is also a lot of potential, so Budde: “We have building land for young families. We have schools and daycare centers. And we have regional trains that take you to the ICE.” They would also drive in snow and frost.

AfD will try it in 2021 without potential for shock

Meanwhile, the excitement of 2017 doesn’t want to be anymore. In the federal election campaign, the AfD presents itself in a more friendly and constructive manner with the slogan: “Germany, but normal.” This is embodied in Saxony-Anhalt by Jan Wenzel Schmidt, candidate for the agricultural constituency Börde – Jerichower Land. It takes an hour and a half by car to get from one corner of the constituency to the other. At least when the streets are clear.

“There are villages whose existence was not known beforehand because they are so remote,” says Schmidt on the phone. The 29-year-old commercial specialist sat in the Magdeburg state parliament until recently and did not attract attention there with harsh speeches. Because of various extremely right-wing contacts, his name appears several times in the opinion of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution on the AfD.

Fighting the CO2 tax is a determining issue

For rural areas, Schmidt calls for a relaxation of monument protection, building funds and loans for young families so that they can make new buildings or, better still, renovated country houses their new home. “A rent cap doesn’t help,” says Schmidt. He, too, wants a reform of the corporate tax and less bureaucracy for home and sports clubs. This is sometimes only roughly outlined in his party’s election manifesto. Above all, however, Schmidt’s AfD is directed against the CO2 tax and thus against rising fuel prices. Schmidt calls the levy “irrational”.

For him it is symptomatic of the politics of the federal government. They continue to concentrate on the big cities “and worsen the situation here with ideological politics”. Many communities have problems getting the funds. There is stagnation, says Schmidt. The latter can also be said about the polls of the AfD shortly before the general election: Their popularity has hardly decreased since 2017, but it has not increased either.