Mayor election in Cottbus: Does Cottbus fall to the AfD? - Politics

With 100,000 inhabitants cottbus It's a big city, but not so big that its history wouldn't fit into a small museum. In the building on Bahnhofstrasse, a lot is about the good days of this place, which was beaten by the fall of the Wall. About the cloth makers in the middle of the 19th century and about the weddings in opencast mining. "Visit Cottbus" advertises a colorful poster from the 1920s for "The gate to the Spreewald". It is not noted that it was made by the artist Ludwig Hohlwein, who worked a lot for the NSDAP before 1933. The present day of the metropolis in the Brandenburg region of Lusatia is also dealt with rather briefly in the city museum. However, the friendly man at the cash register assures us that this part will soon be expanded.

How the story of Brandenburg's second largest city will then be told also depends on the next few days. A new mayor is due to be elected on Sunday, and it could be that the AfD gaining power in a major city for the first time. "Let's make history!" It says on the party's website. "The first alternative mayor of a big city would not only be a sign of change for Cottbus."

There are no reliable surveys as to whether this could actually succeed. However, most observers assume that the AfD candidate Lars Schieske will at least make it into the runoff. The 45-year-old professional firefighter is closely associated with the "Zukunft Heimat" club, which is classified as a right-wing extremist. In the 2019 state election, Schieske won the Cottbus II constituency with 27.3 percent of the vote; Cottbus I got a party colleague. Even the strongest political opponent, the CDU, apparently thinks a right-wing victory is conceivable: in the past few days, the election posters of their candidate Thomas Bergner have quickly been given a sticker. "Blue Town Hall? Not with us!" It says.

Jona Adamski could be really angry now, but above all she seems sober and a bit worn out. Last Sunday she commemorated an unfortunate anniversary with a few dozen fellow campaigners: Armed with knives, stones and Molotov cocktails, around 200 right-wing extremists moved to the Sachsendorf district in 1992 to storm the accommodation for asylum seekers. Baseball bat years are called these times. And now, 30 years later, Adamski is sitting in a café on Cottbusser Altmarkt and has to realize that the city "keeps coming to a point like this". That's why she doesn't want her real name published. A few years ago it would have been different.

A city tour without a clear commitment to the law

The 32-year-old comes from the Spreewald and has been living in Cottbus for ten years. She has seen how civil society, together with the city, has successfully opposed the right-wing extremists. How the city flourished. "Then 2015 was the turning point." Refugees from Syria and Afghanistan were also taken in in Cottbus at the time. The AfD gained popularity - and Holger Kelch, mayor of the CDU since 2014, did not oppose the xenophobia. He loudly demanded a freeze on the move.

Since then, civil society has been weakened in the fight against the right, says Adamski. A city tour without a clear commitment and a larger part of the population that is open to the right: "We have been in a kind of paralysis for five years." There was hardly anything to counter the demonstration against the Corona policy with several thousand people, which was fueled by the right-wing extremists. The scene is now very well organized, says Adamski. "They specifically chose Cottbus as a location."

An assessment that the Brandenburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution confirms. The right-wing scene in the city is considered to be particularly violent and at the same time very well networked. The constitutional protectors call it a "toxic entity." A structure made up of the AfD, the "Zukunft Heimat" association, the Identitarian Movement, right-wing extremist pioneers and hooligans, but also a number of tattoo studios, security companies, restaurants and music labels.

Right-wing extremists: The AfD politician Lars Schieske wants to become mayor in Cottbus - and bring refugees back to mass accommodation.

The AfD politician Lars Schieske wants to become mayor in Cottbus - and bring refugees back to mass accommodation.

(Photo: Frank Hammerschmidt/DPA)

The AfD and its candidate Lars Schieske have been roaming the city with the "mobile regulars' table" for weeks. For their last appearance before the election, they chose the district of Sandow. There is free beer, bratwurst and cotton candy. Sandow was once notorious for being a red district, Schieske begins his speech. Now he has the impression that one is walking through "Little Aleppo". As mayor, he wants to change that. Schieske wants to put refugees back in "mass accommodation" and stop all spending on integration. "Integration is an obligation."

Actually, there is progress: 17 billion euros are flowing into the region

Whether he would even have the powers to do so as mayor is not so important on this evening. More than 100 people came, young, old, men, women, also two or three families. They sit on beer benches and clap. When the candidate shouted that they would fight for every street, some shouted back "yes," loudly. Like the entire AfD campaign, Schieske's speech is a clumsy but effective play on people's fears. "So that Cottbus stays home" is the main slogan. "I'm not right-wing extremist because I say so," says Schieske. "And neither are you."

The success of the regressive comes at a remarkable time when progress is just around the corner. The opencast mine, which has been Lusatia’s engine for decades, will be phased out in the next few years. 8,000 people still work there, but most serious economists believe that the loss of these jobs will be far more than offset in the coming years. Around 17 billion euros are flowing into the region, the railways are already building a plant in Cottbus to service their ICE trains, and the Lausitz Science Park is being developed in the north of the city, where work will be carried out on the future of energy supply. And these are just two of a whole bunch of new settlements.

So the money will come, but the region lacks workers. Many young people emigrate and only a few move there - also because of the image as a stronghold of the right. The Berlin-Brandenburg business associations have just determined that eight out of ten new jobs in the federal state are filled by immigrants. The city administration of Cottbus has now recognized the image problem. Together with the Brandenburg Minister of the Interior and the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a concept against the right-wing has now been drafted. "Of the right-wing extremism is the enemy of structural change," said mayor Kelch at the presentation.

But the election campaign of the Democrats seems surprisingly tired. SPD candidate Tobias Schick wants to "make Cottbus chic with a breath of fresh air," his opponent from the CDU, Thomas Bergner, who has been in charge of public order for many years, writes on his poster that he has "Cottbus in his heart." In the last week before the election, he canceled a stand because there weren't enough people interested. At the AfD, party leader Alice Weidel comes to Cottbus and brings a good 100 people to the streets. And on Sunday, Schieske's people collect cell phone numbers at their events in order to organize a chain letter by telephone. This is to ensure that their sympathizers also vote.

The "Junge Lausitz" makes a structure plan for a modern region

Laura Staudacher is 24, the meeting with her takes place in the café at the Cottbus train station. Staudacher, travel bag over her shoulder, laptop under her arm, works as deputy press spokeswoman for the FDP parliamentary group in Berlin. She commutes three times a week, she does not want to leave Lusatia. "I like living here."

Right-wing extremists: Laura Staudacher is deputy press spokeswoman for the federal FDP and district chairwoman of the FDP Lausitz.  She has the club "Young Lusatia" co-founded.

Laura Staudacher is Deputy Press Spokeswoman for the federal FDP and District Chair of the FDP Lausitz. She co-founded the "Junge Lausitz" association.

(Photo: James Zabel)

That's why she and a few other young people founded the "Junge Lausitz" association in the spring, a non-partisan alliance for the region. "There are many old politicians in local parliaments who hardly bring any initiatives of their own," says Staudacher.

That is why the association, together with the youth organizations of the democratic parties, wants to get young people from Lusatia to take their future into their own hands. "The trauma of reunification with high unemployment is still in the bones of the elderly," she says. But "not only the state has to take care of it, but also those who live here have to contribute their ideas for the future of Lusatia." In the coming week, the initiative wants to present five concrete ideas for the structure plan and thus draw a different, modern picture of Lusatia. Not that of Lars Schieske. Because it would always be the right that would get the region into the national press. "That annoys me," says Staudacher.

This Sunday will also decide how the story of Cottbus will ultimately be told.

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