Naturally, Guido Wolf has to play down his biggest problem.
The conservative Christian Democrats' top candidate in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg has no other choice when it comes to the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany.
“The AfD’s spell will quickly be broken, once they’re sitting in the state parliament. They're probably just a phase,” says the politician, who is hoping to win back the state from the current incumbents, the Greens and the Social Democrats, on March 13.
Mr. Wolf plans to unseat the current premier, Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens, and recapture the party's heartland. The CDU had ruled Baden-Würrtemberg continually for almost 60 years. That is, before the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in the same month as the last state elections in 2011. That crisis and Ms. Merkel's handling of it played into the environmentalist party's hands. This time, thanks to the refugee crisis, it's the AfD's turn to benefit.
I haven’t distanced myself from the chancellor. Guido Wolf, CDU candidate for premier, Baden-Württemberg
It's not just Mr. Wolf who is facing this new threat from the right. There is a similar situation in the other states that are going to the polls on March 13.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU's candidate Julia Klöckner is trying to unseat the center-left Social Democrats, who have held the western state for 25 years. And in eastern Germany’s Saxony-Anhalt, the CDU’s Reiner Haseloff is campaigning for re-election as state premier.
Up until the New Year’s Eve attacks blamed on migrants in Cologne, it looked like the CDU would emerge the winner in all three state elections. But since then, the party has suffered in the polls. Many people have doubts about whether the chancellor’s open-arms refugee policy will succeed.
Voters are looking for clear, radical positions – and are finding them with the AfD. At the same time, the Greens are winning over many of the CDU's more economically liberal supporters, particularly in major cities.
The CDU’s “13th of March” project is threatening to end up as its Black Sunday.
The party is already discussing scenarios about how blame can be shifted from Ms. Merkel to the election candidates. In Baden-Württemberg , for example, the CDU is normally 4 percentage points above the national average, but Mr. Wolf is 6 points below it. Therefore, CDU members argue in Berlin, the plunge in approval ratings cannot be blamed on Ms. Merkel alone.
Spring has announced its arrival in the Black Forest. The temperatures are mild, a breeze blows across the courtyard of the former military riding hall in Rastatt, a pretty town on the French border.
Standing at the entrance is Manuel Speck, a 25-year-old, ponytailed factory mechanic, who is standing as the AfD’s local candidate. What does he want to achieve for the people?
“I have no issues that only affect my election district. I also think that is wrong. For me, it’s about everything,” Mr. Speck said.
And that means tradition families with a “father, mother and children,” the “preservation of our own culture and traditions,” as well as more direct democracy and more police, he says. “Many of our positions were once represented by the CDU. We are in the space that Merkel cleared for us.”
It's not far-right skinheads in bomber jackets that have congregated in Rastatt to support the AfD, but rather older gentlemen in corduroy and tweed, with thinning hair and shiny leather shoes, who drive medium-sized cars.
“My concern is the refugees,” said Fritz Ruhland, 65, from Baden-Baden. “The CDU is now also discovering it because they’re losing their skins.”
Rainer Bender, a 60-year-old architect and hotel-owner, said, “I think the whole thing with the euro is wrong. The AfD was the only party that didn’t go along with it.”
So he said he was voting AfD. But he also made clear: “I won’t have anything to do with Nazis. If the AfD continues to develop in that direction, then I won’t vote for them anymore next time. No problem.”
Maybe not a problem for Mr. Bender but it is for Mr. Wolf. The CDU leader has long tried to strike a moderate tone about the refugee issue. He’s jockeyed around, hesitated, procrastinated.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kretschmann, the state premier, has emerged as the biggest Merkel fan outside the CDU. When the Christian Democrats fell behind the Greens for the first time in the polls, Mr. Wolf switched positions and demanded daily refugee quotas, as did his colleague in Rhineland-Palatinate, Ms. Klöckner. It was the first time he had taken a stance against Ms. Merkel.
“I haven’t distanced myself from the chancellor,” premier candidate Mr. Wolf insists. He, like Ms. Merkel, wants a European solution, but he says the people are getting impatient. “Perhaps we have to reach the road to a European solution in stages,” he says.
But the chancellor plans to speak at the regional party convention this Friday – and Mr. Wolf will likely back down. He wants to adopt an election manifesto and clearly commit to Ms. Merkel’s course.
Yet by yielding to the party leader, he is likely to continue to drive voters who are fearful of change into the arms of the AfD. With globalization and digitization looming large, many people long for the past, including a strong state that takes care of them and protects them from foreigners.
According to a study by the Otto Brenner Foundation, a think tank with ties to German labor unions, it is precisely this constituency that the AfD is targeting in Germany’s wealthy southwest. In this region, the party makes every attempt to pass itself off as decidedly middle-class and conservative.
In Baden-Württemberg, for example, the party’s regional leader, economics professor Jörg Meuthen, is making an effort to present a moderate appearance. The party leadership, the study says, is dominated by “the highly-educated and well-off.” The tone in Rhineland-Palatinate is also “to a large extent composed and objective.” In Saxony-Anhalt, on the other hand, the “dual strategy” becomes clear: In the west, middle-class. In the east, radical.
“Citizens of Merseburg! Citizens! Germans ...!” Hans-Thomas Tillschneider intentionally leaves a long pause after the word “Germans.” Around a hundred people are standing in the town's market place and cheering. “The CDU wants to turn Saxony-Anhalt into a five-star, all-inclusive hotel with unlimited length of stay!” yells the AfD candidate. “All you need to get in is a Syrian passport. We Germans are the workers in this hotel. And if sometime we don’t abide by the law, we are punished!”
Mr. Tillschneider is a Romanian by birth, a scholar of Islam – and spokesman for the so-called “Patriotic Platform” in the AfD. The Otto Brenner Foundation defines this group as “on the extreme far-right fringe.” And that’s also the impression Mr. Tillschneider makes. Members of the international media such as Al Jazeera, The New York Times and Swiss television are in Merseburg looking on as he declares to the jeering crowd: “We won’t sacrifice our German state on the altar of multicultural delusions!”
The only one wearing corduroy pants in Merseburg is Mr. Tillschneider. In the crowd, the men wear black bomber jackets with motorcycle club logos. Women wear tightly-fitting pants and down jackets. Pensioners are scarcely visible. Concerned citizens from the middle class? Not a chance. Nevertheless, the AfD is heading towards the 20-percent mark in Saxony-Anhalt. And the AfD leader in the state, André Poggenburg, is already contemplating a coalition with the CDU: “It’s a question that comes up. Quite automatically.”
Meanwhile, the CDU state premier, Reiner Haseloff, is escaping in his official car in the direction of the future. The driver parks in front of an old coffee factory in Halle an der Saale. On the first floor, 37-year old Daniel Gollmann produces order picking systems for pharmacies. His girlfriend, who wanted to automate her medicine storage facility in her pharmacy, gave him the idea 12 years ago. Today Mr. Gollmann has sales in 14 countries, all the way to Australia.
He has just hired Syrian refugees to conquer the Arab market with their help. When he was economics minister, Mr. Haseloff helped the company get started. Now, he is here to help Mr. Gollman celebrate its 10th anniversary. It is one of the few success stories in the structurally weak state. “I’ll come again for the 50th,” says Mr. Haseloff as he leaves.
Back in the car again, the premier, who heads a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, reflects on the forthcoming election. “We would be re-elected if we distanced ourselves from the federal party,” he says. That is also what the public opinion research institute Infratest Dimap recently found. But with the AfD stirring up hate against Ms. Merkel and the refugees, distancing oneself from the chancellor is a tricky matter.
Although she hardly makes an appearance in Mr. Haseloff’s campaign, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, does and he is Ms. Merkel’s harshest critic. In the meantime, Mr. Haseloff himself is oscillating between the two, demanding a limit on numbers of refugees and controlling the borders.
It’s all an experiment. And the people in the East don’t want any more experiments.
The official limousine stops on Blocksberg mountain, the highest peak of the Harz mountain range. “All the fog lay beneath us and high above was glorious clarity,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote his lover after his visit here. That’s the way it is for Mr. Haseloff, as well.
Down in the valley are the refugee crisis and the AfD. Up here the main issue is a lack of toilet facilities. While 570 kilometers away, the Vienna government is closing the borders with the Balkan states, a roundtable of concerned locals are discussing with the state premier how to attract more tourists to the Harz region and to climb the mountain – without having to pee in the woods along the way. “We will solve the toilet issue – after the elections,” Mr. Haseloff promises.
Life still holds very human problems in store – alongside the refugee crisis. Mr. Haseloff, for example, supports the idea of making pension benefits in eastern Germany equal to the level in the west. He says the East Germans think the present situation is unjust. But what help is it when Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister 200 kilometers away in Berlin, wants to hold on to every cent due to the refugee influx?
Elections are often about the future, and a rarely do successes play a role. Which is another reason why Mr. Haseloff’s CDU have now dropped for the first time below the 30 percent mark. But with which party can he imagine governing with after the election?
Certainly not with the AfD. If there aren’t enough votes to continue the current coalition with the SPD, then the Greens would have to be brought on board too. Or the CDU could lead a minority government, tolerated by the far-left Left party, which is currently polling 20 percent in the state.
Mr. Haseloff has already pledged “not an inch for the communists.” But new elections? Never.
“Lots of stones, tired legs, no view – Heinrich Heine,” is written in the guest book on the Blocksberg. He couldn’t have summed it up better.
This is the dilemma the CDU is facing in the lead-up to the three state elections. And at the moment many of the candidates see the biggest obstacle on the path to power to be none other than Chancellor Merkel. She has been shifting the party consistently to the left ever since she took over the leadership of the CDU. The base went along with the end of nuclear power, the abolishing of compulsory military service, and the minimum wage – after all they yielded electoral results. But she seems to have reached a limit with her refugee policy.
The party is refusing to follow its leader – because the grassroots are refusing to follow. “You don’t need a seismograph. Everybody close to the people notices that something is simmering there,” says Mr. Wolf on his campaign tour.
His bus makes a stop in Stuttgart. The Economic Council, a business group with ties to the party, is hosting an “Innovations Forum.” It’s about “future opportunities of digitization.”
Mr. Wolf addresses the room: “Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity for once not to speak on that one subject.”
But then afterwards, at the reception, the main topic of discussion is yet again refugees. “Ms. Merkel must finally stop with this nonsense," says an older gentleman, who is a successful businessman and loyal CDU voter. "I can understand the people who are now considering voting for the AfD.”
Guido Wolf comes over. “You again,” he calls and shakes the businessman’s hand, who replies, “I think it’s really good that you have now joined together with Mr. Seehofer on the refugee issue.” Mr. Wolf looks completely at a loss. The businessman outdoes himself, adding it’s no longer about the AfD or CDU at all, “It’s about thwarting the Greens. That’s why we have to vote for the CDU.”
It is the weakest argument for Guido Wolf and his CDU – but it is one of the few left to him. The only thing that would probably help now would be a signal from the chancellery. An agreement at the E.U. summit next Monday perhaps. Or an immediate u-turn in the refugee policy.
That is not an option for the chancellor. “Those who really want to support me should vote CDU,” she says.
After March 13, she'll know exactly how many actually do.