Elections in the east German state of Sachsen Anhalt this Sunday may prove decisive for Armin Laschet’s ambition to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor at the general election in September

The state which once described itself as the “Land dser Frühaufsteher“ – the land of the early risers – is run by a CDU-led coalition with the SPD and the Greens. But the race between the CDU and the AfD is too close to call while all parties have said they will not work with the AfD in a coalition.

The most recent poll by Der Spiegel magazine published this Thursday has them almost in a tie with 29 per cent for the CDU and 28 per cent for the AfD. The SPD and DIE LINKE, heir to the former East German state party SED,  are both at 10 per cent with the Greens and the FDP trailing them at 8 and 6 per cent respectively.

Pollsters say an early rise by the 1.8 million voters on election day could benefit the AfD, while there is great uncertainty over whether the record number of postal votes already cast due to the Covid pandemic will affect the outcome. According to figures published by the state election board, a record of 14 per cent of all votes will be cast by mail.

Adding to Laschet’s worries, there is sympathy for closer collaboration with the AfD in some local or regional CDU branches in Sachsen-Anhalt. Rainer Stahlknecht, the CDU’s interior minister in the coalition was ousted by conservative state premier, Reiner Haseloff, last autumn for being too outspoken on this sensitive issue.

While Stahlknecht is not running for re-election on Sunday, his view is still prevailing in many quarters of the CDU in Sachsen-Anhalt.

“For my, it’s crystal clear: Any move towards the AfD will not happen with the CDU. Those who are for it can leave the party“, Laschet stressed in a interview this week.

However, the interview was with newspapers published mainly on his home turf in North Rhine-Westphalia and the “Ouest France“- newspaper, which does not enjoy a big circulation in Sachsen-Anhalt. Nor can Laschet bank on the support of his party colleague Haselhoff  who came out openly for his rival, Markus Söder, in the race to be the conservative candidate for the top job in Berlin.

Haseloff has played down recent frictions and openly welcomed Laschet to some last minute election campaign stops. But Haseloff is considered a weak politician,  the compromise candidate in his own party. The former job center director from Wittenberg, who holds a PhD in physics, failed to stem an open rebellion last autumn when the
majority of his own parliamentary party wanted to vote with the AfD on the issue of the licence fee for public service broadcasting. He made the leader Stahlknecht fall on his sword but had to cave in to the other rebels and to postpone the vote until after the election.

The AfD, meanwhile, is facing its own uncertainties. At the last regional election five years ago, the party became the second strongest force in the regional parliament in Magdeburg on a clear anti-immigration ticket.

This success in 2016, lead by it’s far-right leader, André Poggenburg, meant that every tenth member of the then small regional party organisation suddenly became an MP with Poggenburg as leader of the opposition. But in 2021, immigration is no longer a dominant issue even in eastern Germany.

And Poggenburg was sacked by the AfD national party leadership in 2018 because he was too openly flirting with neo-nazi and ultra-right groups. His successor Oliver Kirchner, like Poggenburg and the Thuringian AfD-leader, Björn Höcke, rooted on the right wing of the party, has by no means the appeal and zeal of Poggenburg.

This makes the high polling figures all the more remarkable. As the AfD’s current strategy is concentrating on the public’s frustration with the authorities’ handling of the Coronavirus crisis, the pandemic may prove to be the decisive factor in Sunday election although, luckily, the infection numbers are on the way down.