Local elections to test Merkel on refugees
By Peter Teffer
Two men in an excavator and a tractor were digging on Tuesday (8 March) at a former tennis club in the south-western German city Offenburg.
“Waterworks,” one of them said. The site - the size of six tennis courts - is being prepared to house 500 refugees in container-buildings.
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A snow-covered umpire chair and some signs are the only reminders of the site's previous function.
A stone's throw away - or a decent tennis serve - Willy Verderio was doing his own construction. The retired German, born from an Italian father, was making the shed in his allotment spring-ready.
He had a nuanced view on the new function of the site, which is close to a residential area.
“We have to be vigilant”, Verderio said. He told this website many residents are afraid, noting that “young men” will be present among the refugees.
Just two months ago Germany was shocked by mass harassment of women during New Year's Eve celebrations, especially in Cologne. Some of the suspects were asylum seekers or other migrants.
Verderio is not in principle opposed to the refugee container village. In fact, he and his wife organise a weekly event in which they distribute second-hand clothes to refugees.
“Let's see how it goes and hope for the best,” he said.
He had a similar assessment of chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy, which has become known in Europe under the German phrase “Wir schaffen das”, meaning “We can do this.”
“She thinks she can do this, but we'll have to see,” said Verderio. He said he won’t be voting for Merkel's centre-right CDU party in Sunday's local election, but rather for the centre-left social-democrats.
On 13 March, there will be elections in three of Germany's 16 states: Baden-Wuerttemberg (where Offenburg is located), Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt.
Together, they have 17 million of Germany's 81.5 million inhabitants. But the elections will be scrutinised for signs of a voters' assessment of Merkel's refugee policy.
The anti-immigration and anti-euro party Alternative fuer Deutschland (Alternative for Germany; AfD) is expected to score a big win.
“The refugee issue is of course a dominating theme,” said Michael Braun, who leads the CDU's election campaign in the Ortenau district of Offenburg.
“The actual themes, the state politics of Baden-Wuerttemberg, are somewhat pushed to the background, unfortunately,” he told this website in the CDU's local office, on the other side of town from the tennis court.
Offenburg's pride is that Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister, represents the constituency in the Lower House of the German parliament in Berlin.
Last year, he burst on the international scene as the principal antagonist of his Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis.
During the height of the Greek debt crisis last summer, Schaeuble, a pro-austerity hawk, became more popular than Merkel.
But his star power is likely to have faded, Braun said.
“Dr Schaeuble is of course a very respected politician, but the refugee issue eclipses all other themes,” Braun told EUobserver.
“The refugee policy has also arrived in our state's territory - it is not only a theme in the main cities.”
Braun said he still believes in “Wir schaffen das.” But he said that some voters are being lured away “by radical slogans”, referring to Alternative fuer Deutschland.
Founded in 2013, the new party passed the electoral threshold for the first time the following year, in the European Parliament elections.
On Sunday (6 March), it received the largest share of votes yet: 13.2 percent, if initial results for municipal elections in Hesse are confirmed on Thursday. In the state's largest city, Frankfurt, it received 10 percent of the votes.
Braun said that those votes are a good indication for the upcoming state elections, but he noted that more than half of the voters were still undecided, and that local and state elections are two different animals.
“The AfD will take away the most votes from CDU”, he said.
AfD's leader Frauke Petry told German press that the double-digit result last Sunday was a “clear signal”.
“The power of established parties is crumbling,” Petry said.
In Baden-Wuertemberg the question will be if AfD can secure third place.
According to a poll by the Insa Institute, the Green party is ahead with 33.5 percent of the votes, followed by the CDU on 28.5 percent. The social-democrats and AfD both poll at 12.5 percent, with the liberals at 6 percent.
It is highly unlikely the AfD will be considered by any of the other parties as a coalition partner. But a good result for AfD might force establishment parties to enter a grand coalition.
For his part, Braun said the CDU is unlikely to enter into a coalition with the greens, even if they are the largest party. He instead expected his party to negotiate with the social-democrats and liberals.
Elsewhere in Offenburg, Ilse Herberg said she does not expect a landslide for AfD in her state.
“They will have a better result than last time, but will not do as well as in Frankfurt. People are more rooted here,” she told this website, while registering clients for Offenburger Tafel, a non-profit organisation that sells food at discount prices to poor members of the community.
Once a week those that can prove they have little to spend can buy donated groceries at the Offenburger Tafel for about 15 percent of their normal retail price.
A sign tells people what is available that week also notes how much of each products customers are allowed to buy: 10 zucchinis, six yoghurt, four packs of pasta, and one loaf of bread.
Herberg said more refugees are lately coming to her charity shop.
“I can only speak for Offenburg,” she said. “If every city is as well-organised as Offenburg - schaffen wir es.”