The SPD’s success in the east was a key to Scholz’s chancellorship. But the mood has changed, the AfD is on the rise. During a visit to Lusatia, the SPD chairman Klingbeil gets to feel how great the disappointment in politics is – and he wants to counter it all the more.
In the city of Forst, in the extreme south-east of Brandenburg, a shop has closed again. Several notices in and around the old, unadorned train station inform that the travel shop selling train tickets is closing. The “failed federal policy” with its 49-euro ticket, which can be purchased online, and the city’s “lack of interest” in the continued existence of the business are to blame. Seven weeks after closing the office, no one has taken the slips of paper. SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, who is looking for a public meeting in Forst on a Tuesday evening, does not see the letter of complaint in his company car.
In any case, announcements like those at the train station are hardly noticeable in the former textile production area of Forst, where derelict industrial sites are derelict and apartments and shops are empty. A bitter farewell letter has been hanging at the entrance of the closed butcher since 2012. Here in Lusatia, many have given up, moved away for better prospects or simply died. The city has shrunk from 26,000 to 18,000 inhabitants since reunification. Lusatia could be one of the places where, in the most drastic case, the death of German democracy begins. But it is also a region of opportunity, where the new economic sectors of a climate-neutral industrial nation are emerging – and with them new life is coming to the starving regions of East Germany.
The constituency MP Maja Wallstein relies on the second scenario: “I support the thesis that Lusatia will be the most exciting region in Germany, if not Europe, in ten years at the latest,” the SPD politician greets her party leader Klingbeil and about 50 listeners in the Forst competence center. The hall of the pretty event venue is full, although there was hardly any poster advertising for the format “Klingbeil in conversation”. The few announcements hang at a height of three meters from the lamppost, which cannot be torn off.
Where have the doctors gone?
The 37-year-old Wallstein, who won the direct mandate in the Cottbus-Spree-Neisse constituency in 2021, enthusiastically talks about the change in mood that she perceived during her current listening hike through the surrounding villages. “Here the grandson has retired, so the company has found a successor,” the people told her during a conversation at the garden fence. But Wallstein’s optimism was pretty exclusive over the course of the next two hours. The people who not only wanted to see Klingbeil live express worries and anger above all.
The owner of a long-established company for the production of technical brushes reproaches the SPD chairman that a significantly higher minimum wage than 12.41 euros demanded by Klingbeil is a threat to his existence. The necessary metals have become 50 percent more expensive since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He complains: “We’re going to the dogs.” Klingbeil promises him other relief for small businesses, but stands by his minimum wage requirement.
Two older women and the life partner of a seriously ill man report how difficult it is to travel long distances to see a doctor at all. “That’s an impertinence to the power of five,” calls another man. Klingbeil talks about concepts that he knows from his home in Lower Saxony. Wallstein reports on the efforts of the SPD-led state government to improve medical care. Doctors will soon be trained on a new medical campus in nearby Cottbus. But: “We can’t force people to come to us,” says Wallstein. Klingbeil knows about the shortage of doctors from all over the country. They are particularly lacking in the structurally weak, overaged areas in the east.
“I’m afraid of war too”
Things get emotional when it comes to the most discussed topic that evening: Russia’s war against Ukraine. Polls show that many people in the new federal states are of the opinion that the Ukrainian government and the NATO countries are at least partially to blame. Many participants in the discussion cannot understand why the federal government is accepting the delivery of US cluster munitions to Ukraine. “The Ossis form their own opinions,” says an elderly woman in her 60s, referring to alternatives to established news media. The distrust in the hall in the media and the federal government is noticeably high when it comes to Ukraine. Several speakers express their fear of a war between Russia and Germany.
Wallstein also talks about her own fears. “I feel the same, but I come to a different conclusion,” says the mother of two, explaining her support for the federal government’s Ukraine policy. “I’m also afraid of the war,” says Klingbeil, explaining how thoroughly Chancellor Olaf Scholz weighs up decisions on the Ukraine war. But some accusations annoy him. “No one in the German Bundestag, no one in social democracy wanted this war to break out.” Towards the end of the evening, the SPD leader is having a bratwurst with some of the harshest critics.
It was similar in his talks with citizens the day before in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Klingbeil later reports in an interview with ntv.de: much applause for positions that put Putin’s war guilt into perspective, less approval of government policy than he experienced in Lower Saxony, for example. Wallstein also sees the evening as typical of the debates she is leading in her constituency. “The war in Ukraine, the shortage of doctors, education policy, right-wing extremism and wages and inflation: that’s what people are concerned about here, and they’re demanding answers,” says Wallstein.
Right-wing extremists on the rise
But giving answers is not that easy. “We have done a lot for the people in the government, but the inflation caused by the war has eaten up this excess. The course remains the right one,” says Klingbeil after the discussion. As chief strategist of the SPD federal election campaign, Klingbeil struck a nerve in the East. Scholz had promised the voters “respect” for the achievements and concerns of the people. The SPD became the strongest force in the east and won all direct mandates in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Even if, as in Wallstein’s constituency, it was sometimes tight. She got 2,300 more first votes than the AfD, which was only the second strongest party in the eastern German states in 2021, but is now clearly leading in the polls.
In Brandenburg, too, the AfD could become the strongest force in the 2024 state elections, which not only frustrates SPD Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke. Forst, where the AfD has dominated the city council since 2019, belongs to Woidke’s constituency, he comes from the corner and still lives here.
In its 2022 annual report, Brandenburg’s state security agency assumes that around 730 of the approximately 1,400 AfD members “have a right-wing extremist attitude”. “It is also characteristic of the Brandenburg state association that leading members actively strive to network with the right-wing extremist spectrum and thus actively promote the dissolution of right-wing extremism,” it continues. Klingbeil is concerned about the advance of right-wing networks in rural areas of eastern Germany. “It’s about conquering social and cultural spaces. The battle isn’t lost yet, but we have to fight back,” says Klingbeil to ntv.de.
Conversations and a race against time
“When push comes to shove, the people here also decide against the Nazis,” says constituency deputy Wallstein. Unlike in other regions of Germany, the AfD in Lusatia does not even masquerade as middle-class. Events such as the public discussion with Klingbeil are all the more important: there is a need to let off steam and express dissatisfaction with ‘those in Berlin’. “People want to be seen and you can see it in the reaction of the media: Anyone who announces that they will vote for the AfD gets attention.” Against this mood, Wallstein wants to continue talking and listening. “At the moment I don’t see any other way other than a personal conversation.”
Similarly, the SPD national chairman: “It’s about being present on site, about addressing the right issues and how to deal with people. Not with a raised index finger, but with respect. In this way, we can also bring back voters who are now leaning towards the AfD in the polls by the next election day,” says Klingbeil. Good wages, adequate pensions, the question of rents and energy prices remained the key issues. “We have the ideas for this and we still have a lot planned. The AfD is blank on these issues.”
“Wow-sitz” is Wallstein’s favorite pun in view of the already rapid structural development in Lusatia, since it became clear that opencast lignite mining was to be replaced as the last major employer. It is all the more important that specialists or doctors from other regions or countries are not deterred by a sometimes xenophobic mood, she says. The federal government, Brandenburg and Saxony want to invest 17 billion euros in the region by the end of the coal phase-out in 2038. Wind and photovoltaic systems as well as the production of hydrogen should create jobs and attract new, energy-intensive companies. Nothing that happens overnight, but working on economic recovery – in Germany in general and in Lusatia in particular – is a race against time. If he comes, the AfD should also lose popularity again. There are still 14 months until the state elections in Brandenburg.