European elections: In Leipzig, a microcosm of Germany’s political scene

The city of Leipzig is a crucible for liberal European values, but the populist AfD is expected to challenge here in EU parliamentary elections.

Matthias Rietschel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP/File
New members of the Thomanerchor (St. Thomas Choir) lay down sunflowers at the tomb of Johann Sebastian Bach before the beginning of a motet in St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Germany, in August 2017.

Leipzig is a lively and broadminded town, the fastest growing in Germany and a cultural beacon. It celebrates Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived and worked here, and the city also hosts festivals for Goths, techno fans, and punks.

And as the campaign for Sunday’s European elections got underway on a cool but sunny May Day, the bustling center of this eastern German city was a microcosm of the national political landscape.

Marching to celebrate Workers’ Day were thousands of trade unionists; gathering a handful of supporters was Andre Poggenburg, an extreme right activist notorious for branding Germans of Turkish background “camel drivers”; and rallying near the church where Bach was choir director were tattooed youths in hoodies chanting anti-fascist slogans and cheering for Europe.

“I’m pro-Europe,” says Gerd, a music student who did not want to give his last name. “It’s a way to solve our problems and show our solidarity.”

Gerd is a spiritual descendant of a panoply of famous Germans who made Leipzig a crucible for liberal European values. St. Thomas church, an imposing Gothic edifice, was not only where Bach ran the choir: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played the organ there and Richard Wagner was baptized at the font. (More recently it was the site of weekly demonstrations against Communist rule that helped bring down the Berlin wall.)

Protestant reformer Martin Luther held the three-week-long Leipzig Disputation in 1519, making the arguments that got him excommunicated from the Catholic church; the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe studied here and so did philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

But that tradition is being challenged to live up to its values by newcomers. A few hundred yards from St. Thomas, groups of bored young migrants hang around outside the train station. Their arrival, along with more than a million others in recent years, has sparked resentment in eastern Germany, where many voters feel foreigners are being favored over Germans who suffered under the communist regime.

Nationwide, immigration has lost its sting as a political issue in Germany. A poll for state broadcaster ARD ahead of Sunday’s election found that the environment and climate control are now the top issues for the most voters – 48% of them.

Social security is the second biggest topic; immigration comes fourth.

That helps explain why the far-right party which has made halting immigration a key plank in its campaign platform, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is falling behind in the opinion polls. The latest forecasts give Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party (CSU) 30% of the vote, followed by the Greens at 19%.

The Social Democrats, who have traditionally been the second largest party and who are in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel, are in third place at 17%. The AfD is lagging in fourth place with 12%.

That’s the national picture. But in eastern Germany, which has been fertile ground for nationalist and anti-immigration parties since reunification in 1990, the image is largely reversed.

The AfD has trained its sights on the environment, accusing the Greens of damaging German industry; the AfD denies climate change, opposes wind farms, and promotes the use of coal. But the party has mainly sought to make the European elections a referendum on migration.

That resonates better in eastern Germany than elsewhere in the country. Here the AfD comes top of the opinion polls with 23%, one point ahead of the CDU/CSU. Then come the Left party, the Social Democrats, and the Greens.

“At the moment is there a feeling that the East is somehow disadvantaged and that those disadvantages must be eliminated,” says Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at the Free University of Berlin. “But the feeling is they are not being removed because money is being given to foreigners first.”

“Despite its reputation as a progressive city, Leipzig is not immune to these feelings and other resentments,” Dr. Neugebauer adds.

Only 20% of German voters live in the former East Germany, a fact that will mitigate the impact of the AfD’s expected success in this part of the country. But that has not stopped its rivals from concentrating their fire on its nationalist message in a bid to curb its appeal.

“It’s high time we put the enemies of democracy back in their boxes,” trade union chief Reiner Hoffmann urged at his Mayday rally. “And every day you show us how that is done in the city of Leipzig, a trade fair city which is open to the world.”

“This European election is … an election about our democracy,” agrees Annalena Baerbock, co-founder of the resurgent Greens.

Leipzig’s image as an open city – built on its 850-year history of hosting trade fairs – made it an attractive campaign stop for the head of the Social Democrats’ candidate list, Katarina Barley, currently Germany’s justice minister.

She came to town last weekend, claiming to be “as European as you can be.” The Cologne-born politician is half British and half German and she was formerly married to a Spanish man of Dutch origin.

In her speech to a crowd of supporters, she struck out at the nationalist AfD. “Do we want a Europe that makes unified decisions and solutions based on compromise, or do we want a Europe … where everyone puts their own country first and doesn’t care what happens elsewhere?” she asked.

Leipzig, with its special history, provided a sympathetic audience for that kind of rhetoric. The same weekend as Ms. Barley visited, nearly 10,000 people, most of them young, turned out for a rally themed “One Europe for Everyone: Your Voice Against Nationalism.”

It remains to be seen on Sunday whether that voice finds much echo in the rest of eastern Germany.

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