The electoral success of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, which scored 12.6 percent in September 24 elections, stunned much of the country.
But in Cottbus, located in the Lusatia coal mining region near the Polish border, many cheered the strong result for the party whose battle cry is “Merkel must go.”
In the city of 100,000 people that is dominated by drab Soviet-style tower blocks, the AfD even beat the chancellor’s conservatives, more than doubling its national result by attracting 26.8 percent of the vote.
The list of grievances against Merkel is long if you listen to Klaus Gross, 67, a former army officer of the Soviet-allied regime who became a sales representative after Germany’s 1990 reunification.
“First we had the policy of rescuing the euro, then renewable energy with all these wind turbines everywhere,” he said, pointing to a green energy push that unsettles many in a region dependent on massive open-pit coal mines.
“Then the shut-down of nuclear power plants, overnight,” he went on, referring to the 2011, post-Fukushima decision to shutter Germany’s nuclear reactor fleet.
“And then finally the refugees,” he added, pointing to Germany’s mass influx of more than one million asylum seekers since 2015, which has became Merkel’s key political liability, even within her own conservative bloc.
“Who asked us if this was what we wanted?,” Gross fumed. “Much of the population has been ignored by Merkel and her people!“
In a restaurant near the Cottbus city center, local AfD candidate Marianne Spring-Raeumschuessel was approached by a couple aged in their thirties.
“We voted for you!,” the young woman whispered to her. “You’re right!“
“They have celebrated me like a pop star around here,” said Spring-Raeumschuessel, a former businesswoman aged in her 70s.
She spoke with glee about the fact Merkel’s reduced majority has forced her into tough coalition talks with two smaller parties, predicting that “it will not work.”
The fact that the chancellor said, after scoring her party’s worst result since 1949, that she had done nothing fundamentally wrong, showed that “Mrs Merkel understood nothing.”
Wolfgang Horbenz, 76 and a former power plant mechanic, said the establishment parties must once more take the people seriously and that the AfD “has a future as long as the other parties refuse to change their policies from top to bottom.”
Cottbus, 120 kilometers southeast of Berlin, boasts some historic homes from its early 20th century days as a flourishing textile industry hub — but since the Cold War era it is dominated by residential blocks made from prefabricated concrete slabs.
Gerd Loesky, a 73-year-old retired home decorator, lives in one of them.
What galls him is the mass arrival of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees over the past two years, he said, telling AFP: “It bothers me that they come here ... and that money is wasted on them.”
Horbenz, the mechanic, conceded that “we do not have many,” with the town hall putting the number of migrants in Cottbus at around 3,000.
He said locals “do not want a situation like what I saw in the Ruhr basin” — the industrial heartland of western Germany that attracted large numbers of Turkish and other foreign-born laborers from the 1960s.
Eastern Germany still lags behind the west in income and wealth, and heavily-indebted Cottbus has long had to scrimp on fixing its roads and bridges or investing in its schools or kindergartens.
“Now many people are asking: ‘Where does all the money come from for the refugees’?” said Gross. “All of a sudden? That’s just not on!“
Margrit Koal, a 65-year-old doctor and AfD voter, said that since the election one month ago, she once more feels “hope.”
“I’m happy because there’s now a force in Germany that forms a counter-pole to the established parties,” said Koal.
Asked about the openly racist and revisionist remarks made by some AfD politicians, she said “every public person sometimes says things that they may regret later.”