As Annalena Baerbock steps on to the stage, the downpour that minutes before had soaked those gathered on Chemnitz’s Theater Platz ceases. The Green party candidate is quick to use the opportunity to stress that everything is still possible. “Minutes ago it was raining, now the sun has come out – it can happen,” she says with a huge grin, hinting that the change in the weather is a good omen for her party’s fortunes.
There are both chuckles and jeers from those gathered. With a week to go before one of the most open and tension-filled German elections in years, Baerbock is in the last stages of a campaign that weeks ago saw her heading for the top job, as successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, but in which she is now fighting for second or third place.
With Germany on the brink of its biggest political switch since 2005, the drama of the final days of campaigning is pulling in the crowds. And everyone puts the twist on the weather that suits them. For Brigitte Jung, a retired kitchen help who has been unemployed since being made redundant from the Chemnitzer Hof hotel on the same square just over 20 years ago, the rain is “a sign from him up there that she and her kind are not wanted”.
The 73-year-old, sheltering under a lilac umbrella, insists that the environmentalist party would be a disaster for Chemnitz, the state of Saxony, and for Germany. “They’ll put up the price of petrol, cover the country with wind farms and ban meat,” she warns.
And in reference to two forms of transport the Greens have been promoting to cut CO2 emissions, she adds: “I’m too old to ride a cargo bike and too poor to own an electric car.”
Neither is she enthusiastic about the other main contenders for the chancellorship. Armin Laschet for the Christian Democrats “is nothing but a creepy clown,” she says, recalling how he was caught laughing on camera at a tribute to those who died in Germany’s recent floods. Olaf Scholz for the Social Democrats, who is leading in the polls, she finds “colourless but probably the best of a bad bunch”.
Last time, she voted for the far-right AfD – along with a quarter of Chemnitzers – but she says they “will never get into government, so what’s the point of giving them my vote?” Despite her disillusionment, she is keen to “see the circus”, as she puts it, on display on Friday morning in this university city, known as Karl Marx Stadt in communist times, which has a strong working-class industrial heritage.
Among the crowds a group of anti-vaccine protesters and pandemic sceptics try to interrupt the event, shouting “you will not force the vaccine poison on us” and blowing whistles.
Overlooking the square, some dark-clad, burly males, identifying themselves as members of the far-right scene, wave banners and jeer as a contingent of several dozen police look on. Memories of 2018 still shape the local psyche: tensions over immigration to Germany spilled into street riots here, led by rightwing extremists, after the death of a local man for which two refugees were blamed.
In one of her few election tour dates in the former communist east, Baerbock, dressed in a black trench coat, is at pains to acknowledge the struggles of those who participated in the peaceful revolution to bring down the East German regime in 1989. And she says similar efforts are needed now to tackle the “huge challenge of our age,” namely the climate emergency. She predicts that Europe’s largest economy has the innovation and creative potential to become a pioneer in climate-neutral technology, which she insists will “create well-paid jobs”, even as it closes down local coal mines.
In Saxony, the Greens will be lucky if they secure fifth place ahead of the far-left Die Linke. But they are predicted to secure 10% – almost double their vote in 2017, which, say policy makers within the party, makes Baerbock’s presence in Chemnitz worthwhile, not just for this election, but those to come.
Another reason is the AfD, which despite being predicted to lose votes this time round, still breathes down the necks of all the established parties in Saxony, as elsewhere in the region, in particular since entering the Bundestag as the main opposition party four years ago.
The AfD rejects what it views as the hysteria surrounding climate change, which it says, as with the coronavirus, is little more than an artificial construct being used to impose controls on the population like those deployed by the communist regime.
“Climate change is nothing new,” says Tino Chrupalla, whose election to the Bundestag for the AfD in the Saxon city of Görlitz has propelled him to the top echelons of the party in Berlin. “It makes little sense to tackle global warming – we just need to adjust to it.” The tax on CO2 emissions is nothing more than a “modern form of the selling of indulgences”, he insists, as well as warning that Germans are being fleeced by “the highest electricity prices in the world” as it attempts to transition to renewable energy. Instead of wind and solar energy, the party is determined to resurrect nuclear power stations.
On Friday evening, just over 260km to the north in Potsdam, a posher part of the former communist east, young people are gathered on Bassinplatz to put questions to the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, who has been on a roll for weeks after surpassing the CDU’s Laschet in the polls.
Alexa Bouwer, 22, a history student drinking a beer with friends, says she has already made up her mind who she will vote for but she has come to soak up the atmosphere.
“I have only ever known Angela Merkel,” she says, pointing out that she was aged six when the outgoing German chancellor came to power. “This election is one of the most crucial for years, not just for Germany but also for Europe. It’s about our future, and we are excited about having the chance to shape a new political landscape.”
For the two-hour debate, Scholz is dressed casually in a sweater, and – unusually – is addressed as Olaf, and referred to in the personal “du” form. He promises that as chancellor he will tackle everything from increasing pay and working conditions for care workers to ensuring farmers aren’t priced off their land by renewable energy plants.
He will also “get to work immediately” on ensuring that Germany becomes greenhouse gas neutral by 2045, but insists “the enormity of the task involved in effectively dismantling an industrial system which has existed for over 200 years is something most people do not grasp”.
The atmosphere is cosy and amicable, the seriousness of the topics lightened somewhat by jokes and beer. But then a group calling itself “the Last Generation” arrives. Members have been on hunger strike for 20 days, and today they bring a banner and a demand for a live television debate on the climate emergency with Scholz and the other leading candidates ahead of election day.
Alarm has been growing over the health of the strikers, who are camped in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, and in hushed tones on the sidelines Scholz urges them to “stop this self-destructive act”, saying he is willing to speak to them but only when they break their strike.
“I’m so disappointed,” says Jacob Heinze, one of the hunger strikers, gaunt and wrapped in a scarf as he watches Scholz drive away and the audience disperse. “I have no hope for this election as none of the parties which have a chance of winning has a programme which could avert the crisis that’s coming, and none of them are prepared to have an honest conversation about it.”