German voters went to the polls in Berlin today 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.
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.