DIPPOLDISWALDE, Germany (Reuters) - Like a third of his neighbors in the east German town of Dippoldiswalde, Rene Rothe voted for the far right in last Sunday’s election. The biggest concern for the 57-year-old milk farmer was migrants - especially if they drain government funds.
“There’s loads of refugees here in the town and I’m wondering what will happen to my pension,” he said as he emerged from one of the renovated pastel-colored shops that line Dippoldiswalde’s clean cobbled streets.
The town of 14,500 people has taken in 132 asylum seekers, according to the town’s official website.
“I have to pay for what the refugees need, and then when their families follow I’ll have to pay again won’t I?” he said.
Campaigning on a platform to “take your country back”, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent of the national vote, propelling it into parliament as the third largest party and making it the first far-right group to win seats in the lower house since the 1950s.
In the state of Saxony, where Dippoldiswalde lies, the AfD was the overall winner, beating even Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who won at the national level.
While the former Communist east has taken in far fewer than the west of the more than a million migrants that have arrived in Germany in the past several years, the AfD won around one fifth of votes there compared to around one in ten in the west.
The AfD spokesman in Dippoldiswalde, Rolf Suessmann, said voters turned to his party because they were angry about the government’s liberal migrant policy and some felt left behind.
Problems in the town ranged from a patchy mobile network and small firms facing problems with digitalization to low pay, with some people earning less than 10 euros an hour, he said.
“Here especially most people don’t agree with the idea of a multicultural society,” Suessmann, a bailiff, told Reuters.
Cultural differences between east and west, reunited less than 30 years ago, persist.
“In the west a multicultural society of immigration is seen as a cultural achievement whereas in the east it’s seen as a threat,” said Werner Patzelt, political scientist at Dresden’s Technical University.
Protest groups find more fertile ground in east Germany where party preferences are not set in stone and people tend to trust institutions less than in the west, he added.
The concern over pensions was an example of that. Germany’s population is aging fast and people worry that there will not be enough young workers to fill the pension pots when they hit retirement age. Some are concerned that because many migrants are claiming benefits, it will detract from their own welfare.
Germany’s finance minister has insisted that the migrant issue had not left anyone in Germany with even a euro less for their family or children. The AfD has said it has not finalised its position on pensions.
Many rural areas in eastern Germany suffered a ‘brain drain’ after reunification as young, educated people moved to the west, said Thomas Krueger, head of the German government’s bpb agency for civic education.
While some eastern industrial zones and university towns have flourished since - Saxony itself has become known as ‘Silicon Saxony’ due to its success as a high-tech hub - many people in rural areas, some of whom have to travel 40 km (25 miles) to get to a local authority, feel forgotten, he said.
“In many regions there was emigration, no businesses settled, there were no prospects for jobs and on top of that there was new competition for jobs even in small and medium-sized businesses, with workers from central and eastern Europe suddenly there,” Krueger said.
Polling institute infratest dimap said its exit polls on election day showed that while almost three-quarters of AfD voters thought their personal economic situation was good, some 42 percent felt disadvantaged compared to others.
Those who voted for the party were concerned about losing their German culture, refugees changing the country and Islam getting too much influence, the survey of thousands of voters showed. Almost two-thirds voted for the AfD in protest, it said.
The party fared better among men than women and most of its voters were of working age. Around one fifth were unemployed while another fifth were laborers. White-collar workers and self-employed people also make up a sizeable part of their voters.
Manfred Guellner, head of Forsa polling institute, said some of the AfD’s voters in the east saw themselves as the losers in reunification.
“They feel left behind and they’re looking for a scapegoat and now they’ve found one in the refugees, who they think are getting all the money that they lack,” he said.
The jobless rate in Dippoldiswalde is only four percent, labor office data showed.
But Gisela, 66, lost her job at a restaurant shortly after reunification and was unemployed for 26 years before reaching pension age.
“The foreigners are given everything and when we want something the answer is no,” she said, sitting on a bench overlooking the spot where the restaurant once stood.
She said she could not remember who she voted for and asked that her surname not be used.
“The foreigners need to go back home quickly and the young people need to get work,” she said.
Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall