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Germany's Coalition Government Braces For Bavaria's Elections


German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government is bracing for another political blow this weekend. The anti-immigrant AfD party, which already forms the official opposition in Germany's national parliament, could achieve similar success in Bavaria's state elections this Sunday.

That would come at the expense of Merkel's political allies. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson takes us to one of the strongholds of the AfD in Bavaria.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Ingolstadt isn't a typical stronghold for the AfD, which traditionally plays to Germany's working class in the less affluent, formerly communist east. In this Bavarian medieval city, luxury cars abound on the cobblestone streets. The 137,000 residents of Ingolstadt, where carmaker Audi is headquartered, are said to enjoy the highest per capita income in Germany. But as well-off as the people in Ingolstadt are, many here are rather anxious about their future.

Enter the AfD, which excels at stoking such fears. The far-right faction in recent years has siphoned off a steady stream of voters from Merkel's key Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, which for the most part has run Ingolstadt and the rest of the Alpine state since 1946. So why are CSU voters flocking to the AfD? Johannes Kraus von Sande, its local candidate for the state elections, offers this explanation.

JOHANNES KRAUS VON SANDE: (Through interpreter) The AfD fulfills the promises the CSU makes. The CSU's failure to keep promises has pretty much defined the whole history of that party.

NELSON: The CSU candidate from Ingolstadt is police Chief Alfred Grob. And he rejects the AfD claim. Grob instead blames the CSU's current problems on a protest vote against Merkel for failing to deal with the more than 1 million asylum seekers who've come to Germany since 2015.

ALFRED GROB: (Through interpreter) We see this phenomenon not just with the CSU. It's just as bad for the SPD.

NELSON: He is referring to the center-left Social Democrats. Grob says there are other factors contributing to voters' fears. The diesel emissions scandal and other problems at Audi have residents wondering whether their booming economy will be short-lived. And the large community of German Russians, who immigrated here after the collapse of communism in 1989, has been flocking to the AfD over fears the asylum seekers will take away their jobs.



NELSON: At a CSU campaign rally this week in Ingolstadt, Bavarian premier Markus Soeder tried to cheer up the party faithful by dismissing their far-right rival as anti-Semitic and on the political fringe.


MARKUS SOEDER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Soeder warned the AfD it would incur God's wrath and had no business being in the Bavarian state legislature.



NELSON: AfD officials, meanwhile, are spreading their own message. They've put up billboards around Ingolstadt warning of Muslim hordes stripping Bavaria of its Christian identity, decimating German pensions and committing crimes. The campaign has increased discrimination against asylum-seekers here as well as the abuse of Muslim women who wear headscarves, like Yeser Saygili.

YESER SAYGILI: (Through interpreter) I help a lot of immigrant women who are looking for jobs. One office manager looking for a cleaning woman recently asked me if the applicant wore a headscarf. I was like, hello, how far have we regressed? In the end, she didn't get the job because she wore a headscarf.

(Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking German).

SAYGILI: (Speaking German).

NELSON: The Turkish woman moved to Ingolstadt a quarter century ago and teaches German to immigrant children, like this 2-year-old boy, in the same neighborhood dominated by AfD's German-Russian base. Saygili says she fears a far-right win in Bavaria on Sunday will only make things harder for Muslims in Ingolstadt. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Ingolstadt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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