October 2, 2018 / 12:27 PM / 14 days ago

Far-right surge in Bavaria vote could reshape Germany's national politics

NUREMBERG, Germany (Reuters) - The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is poised to humiliate Chancellor Angela Merkel’s allies in an Oct. 14 vote for Germany’s most influential regional government, an election that could have far-reaching implications for national politics.

With blunt anti-Islamic rhetoric and attacks on Merkel’s migrant policy, the AfD is expected to muscle into the regional parliament in Bavaria for the first time.

That could help end one of the iron laws of post-war Germany: the near total domination of one of the richest and most populous states by a regional conservative party that has used its clout there to wield outsized national power for decades.

Polls point to the Christian Social Union (CSU) losing its absolute majority and securing only about 35 percent of the vote. The biggest winners would be the Greens and AfD on about 16 percent and 12-13 percent respectively.

“We will inflict pain on the big parties. That’s what motivates us. The chancellor has nothing more to give,” Wolfgang Doerner, a 57 year-old businessman and AfD candidate for the Bavarian assembly told a cheering crowd of supporters in mediaeval Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second biggest city.

“This vote will be felt in Berlin as well as Munich,” Doerner told mostly male delegates in a modern concert hall.

The CSU has fallen short of an absolute majority in Bavaria’s state assembly only once since 1954, when it missed by two seats in 2008. Its vote share, usually close to 50 percent, has not fallen below 43 percent in 64 years.

That regional power has assured Bavarian CSU leaders a solid grip on senior cabinet positions in the conservative national governments that have dominated post-war Germany.

If the polls are right, the vote will be a heavy blow to CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who props up Merkel’s coalition government in Berlin and serves as interior minister.

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The AfD already entered Germany’s national parliament last year and has seats in all but one of its other state assemblies. But the Bavaria surge is particularly important because of the pressure that puts on Seehofer, and by extension Merkel.

Bavaria has been the gateway by which most of the 1.5 million asylum seekers who reached Germany in the past three years entered the country. The CSU under Seehofer has positioned itself well to the right of Merkel’s own national CDU party on immigration in an effort to beat back an AfD threat.

Regional AfD leader Martin Sichert thinks his party will still exceed opinion poll forecasts.

“I am cautious about trusting polls because people try to demonise and stigmatise the AfD. We are the baddies and in telephone polls, people don’t admit to voting for us,” Sichert told Reuters in an interview in Berlin.

“We’re not a right wing party, we represent views shared by the majority of people on border controls and Islam not belonging to Germany,” said Sichert, a 38-year old businessman who has a seat in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

Such language resonated with backers in Nuremberg.

“We just speak the truth. I don’t want my country to go to the dogs, I don’t want it to go Islamic,” said 71-year Gregor, previously a CSU voter, who did not want to give his surname.

Since August, when the eastern city of Chemnitz was hit by Germany’s most violent far-right protests in decades, the AfD has faced extra scrutiny over accusations that it harbours extremists.

Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of the federal party, told the conference that a few “idiots” who did “stupid things” in Chemnitz — like make the outlawed Hitler salute — had stigmatised the rest.

Outside the conference hall, 3,000 “Alliance against the AfD” protesters described the AfD as a potent threat, especially after a senior conservative in eastern Saxony for the first time left open the option of sharing power with it, which Merkel and the CSU have ruled out.

“I fear the CSU and AfD will be the biggest parties in the election and then they will work together,” said protestor Bettina Heck, 39. “They make themselves sound reasonable in public, but underneath, they are radical and dangerous.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks as Alexander Gauland of the Anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) listens during a session at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Peter Graff

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