German voters go to the polls in Berlin in a regional election where the anti-migrant AfD party hopes to capitalise on anger against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees.
Merkel braces for populist gains in Berlin elections
Merkel braces for populist gains in Berlin elections Berlin (Germany) – 18 September 2016 10:38 – AFP (Frank ZELLER) German voters went to the polls in Berlin Sunday in a regional election where the anti-migrant AfD party hoped to capitalise on anger against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees.The rightwing populist Alternative for Germany has mobilised xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiment to win opposition seats in nine out of 16 states in Germany and is especially strong in the ex-communist east.Fresh gains for the AfD — especially 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.Germany took in one million asylum seekers last year, and over 70,000 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 rightwing activists shouting “get lost” — later conceded it was hard to reach “protest voters” who have turned their backs on mainstream parties.Polls opened at 0600 GMT under clear blue skies and were to close at 1600 GMT, with some 2.5 million people to chose both a new city-state parliament and 12 local district assemblies.Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) has a national majority but in Berlin serves as junior coalition partner to Mayor Michael Mueller’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), traditionally the strongest party in this 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 likely to team up with the ecologist Greens and the far-left Die Linke party.- ‘Poor but sexy’ -In a city famously dubbed “poor but sexy” by its previous mayor, the openly-gay bon vivant Klaus Wowereit, the election campaign has been 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.More seriously, thousands of refugees were left waiting for days and weeks last year at Berlin’s then hopelessly overwhelmed central migrant registration centre, with many sleeping in the dirt outside.Casting his ballot early on Sunday, police officer Tobias Ludley, 27, said he worried about indebted 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 expressing concern 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.”There are many intelligent people among the refugees and we should be using their potential or it will be a missed opportunity.”- ‘Misanthropic, racist’ -The top candidate meant to fix the mess is the SPD’s Mueller, 51, who took over mid-term from Wowereit almost two years ago and is now seeking a popular mandate.His main opponent is the CDU’s Henkel, 52, who is running on a law-and-order platform that has seen mass police raids against anti-capitalist squatters and promises to crack down on drug dealers and to equip police with stun guns.As the election has neared, AfD’s rise has come to the fore with Henkel saying: “I can’t stand a party that tolerates racists in its leadership”.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.It has also tapped into popular frustration with the CDU and SPD, who rule Germany in a “grand coalition”.Mueller issued a passionate plea for voters to reject politicians with a “worldview that is misanthropic and racist through-and-through”.”Berlin overcame the Wall and shoot-to-kill orders and learnt the right lessons from a cruel history of suffering, persecution, terror and war,” he wrote. “Berlin today is the capital of freedom.”bur-fz/hmw