SPREMBERG, Germany (Reuters) - A German far-right party is using a simple message to attract voters in a mining region threatened by government plans to phase out coal: jobs are more important than the environment.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s aim to wean Europe’s biggest economy off fossil fuels is the main issue in a September election in the state of Brandenburg, where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is almost neck-and-neck with her conservatives.
“People are counting on us to stop this nonsense,” Steffen Kubitzki, an AfD candidate seeking a seat in the Brandenburg assembly, told supporters at a campaign event last month in Spremberg, a town of 23,000 near the Polish border.
“We won’t get a second chance. We will go from village to village, door to door, and tell people to vote for us,” he added, drawing applause from the 50 men and five women gathered at a restaurant in the mining town. “Jobs are on the line.”
As the migrant crisis that propelled it into the national parliament two years ago fades, the AfD has positioned itself as the only party opposed to Germany’s switch to renewable energy.
It is organizing town hall meetings with supporters and leading protests against the phase-out of fossil fuels in the 58 towns and villages that make up Brandenburg’s brown coal region of Lusatia, or Lausitz in German, south of Berlin.
Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) - who rule in a loveless coalition at the national level - are expected to lose support to the AfD on Sept. 1 in Brandenburg, one of three eastern states voting this Autumn.
The SPD, which governs Brandenburg with the far-left Die Linke, could face calls from its own ranks to quit the federal coalition with Merkel if it loses control of the state.
The AfD is expected to almost double its share of the vote in Brandenburg to around 20 percent, putting it level with the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
The AfD is polling on 25 percent in Saxony, where it is expected to emerge as the second-biggest party behind the CDU in an election there on the same day as in Brandenburg.
Germany’s major political parties refuse to work with the AfD, accusing some of its leaders of racism and playing down Nazi crimes.
But in a region where many fear the economy will collapse without the more than 16,000 jobs dependent on coal, the AfD’s climate change scepticism seems to be winning more voters than government pledges of funds to help the Lausitz exit from fossil fuels.
“My father was a miner, my grandfather was a miner and they both told me: ‘coal brought the Lausitz to life and without coal the Lausitz will die out’,” said Uwe Neumann, 58, the owner of a landscaping business who was at the AfD event.
A long-time CDU supporter, Neumann voted AfD in a national election two years ago and will do the same in the regional vote in September.
Many of the million people living in the Lausitz fear the end of open-cast mining would be disastrous in a region where unemployment is almost twice the national average.
The Czech-controlled Lausitz Energie Kraftwerke AG that operates the mines and power stations here is the region’s largest employer, with 8,000 workers.
“If those jobs go, thousands more will follow,” said Neumann. “Everyone here depends on those jobs for a living. The baker, the hairdresser, the plumber, everyone.”
The Lausitz has four lignite mines that feed three power stations producing about 7 percent of Germany’s annual power generation, about 38 percent of which comes from coal.
Plans to exit coal by 2038 and abandon nuclear by 2022 are part of Germany’s costly transition to renewables, known as the Energiewende.
The AfD says that without coal and nuclear Germany will become dependent on energy imports as renewables cannot fill the gap. It also says prices will rise in a country with the highest electricity bills in Europe.
“It is an ideological project that has nothing to do with reality,” said AfD national lawmaker Steffen Kotré. “We have a plan and the plan is to stick to coal.”
The AfD’s critics accuse it of playing on people’s fears to win votes.
“This feeds scepticism about the coal exit,” said Heide Schinowsky, a Greens lawmaker in the Brandenburg parliament, whose party is forecast to double its share of the vote in September, just like the AfD.
A government-appointed commission in January proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45 billion) in aid over two decades for regions affected by the coal phase-out, with a large chunk for the Lausitz.
“For the last 30 years we have relied on the coal sector but we have little else,” said Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg who represented the Lausitz in the commission.
“This is our opportunity to develop the Lausitz away from coal with government help,” she said. “It will put us on the map.”
The commission said a priority for the Lausitz is to boost its transport infrastructure, set up research and development centers and invest in modern energy storage facilities.
The problem for the SPD-led government in Brandenburg trying to act on those recommendations is that many in the state prefer sticking with coal than embracing change.
“The AfD is realistic in its approach to the Energiewende even though it is giving a simple answer to a complex question,” said Dirk Suessmilch, who runs the SPD’s office in Spremberg.
“But for us as SPD, how can we say we are the party of the workers when we are supporting a plan that will lead to thousands of job losses?”
The SPD is struggling to woo voters who handed the party its worst result since 1949 in the 2017 national election. It is polling about 16 percent nationally, behind the conservatives and the Greens.
Merkel, who is to step down in 2021, has acknowledged the risk of pushing people into the arms of far-right parties if their fears of her drive to renewables are not allayed.
“It’s no wonder that people in the coal-producing regions are voting for extremist parties and that’s because they feel disenfranchised,” she said last month. “This means that we have to execute the structural transformation in a way that is acceptable to people.”
Her government’s commitment of 240 million euros in initial assistance for the mining regions could fall short.
In Spremberg, electrician Horst Hannusch, 53, who was a miner for 10 years, agreed with the AfD on the coal exit but won’t vote for the party.
“The AfD is telling it like it is: ‘we have coal and we should use it,” said the former SPD voter. He is tempted to stay at home on election day.
Mayor Herntier fears abstentions will only help the AfD, which in 2017 won almost 30 percent in the Lausitz.
“Many people are voting AfD in protest,” she said. “If voting trends continue this way, people have to ask themselves which foreign company is going to invest here. This is our chance and we better not blow it.”
Additional reporting by Markus Wacket and Vera Eckert; Editing by Giles Elgood