BERLIN – In a bellwether election Sunday ahead of three key regional polls, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party lost its bid to capture its first mayor’s office in the country.
In a runoff ballot in Goerlitz, Octavian Ursu, 51, a Romanian-born classical musician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU party, drew 55.1 percent of the vote against 44.9 percent for the AfD’s Sebastian Wippel, 36, a former policeman.
The contest for Goerlitz’s city hall was seen as a litmus test for three upcoming state elections in the former communist east, with the future of Merkel’s fragile right-left coalition potentially on the line.
The AfD made strong gains in Goerlitz’s economically struggling Saxony state in May’s European elections and hopes to beat Merkel’s CDU party in the upcoming regional poll.
With a population of 55,000, Goerlitz, on the Polish border, boasts a quaint historic town center that has turned the town into a tourist magnet and attracted top Hollywood directors.
Goerlitz has served as a location for films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Reader.” But many of its young citizens have turned their backs on the town due to a lack of job opportunities.
Wippel had won the first round three weeks ago with 36.4 percent against Ursu’s 30.3 percent.
However, Ursu had since attracted the support of the two smaller parties that were out of the race — one of them the Greens, who came third with 27.9 percent last time.
The CDU’s Saxony state premier, Michael Kretschmer, who hails from Goerlitz, had urged voters to reject the AfD, arguing that “many people underestimate how radical the party is.”
The anti-immigration, anti-Muslim AfD — already represented in Germany’s parliament and all 16 regional assemblies — is polling as the strongest party in Saxony as well as Brandenburg state.
Both of those regions will go to the polls on Sept. 1, followed by another eastern state, Thuringia, on Oct. 27.
The AfD’s parliamentary group leader in Berlin, Alice Weidel, said the neck-and-neck result in Goerlitz in the face of strong opposition marked an “enormous success” for her party.
“He nearly managed to become the first AfD mayor: Sebastian Wippel won an unbelievable 44.9 percent of the vote — it could hardly have been closer,” she tweeted.
Goerlitz, a major trading hub in the Middle Ages, was spared damage by Allied bombing during World War II, preserving its cobblestone lanes and Baroque architecture.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost 30 years ago, hundreds of millions of euros in German and EU funds have been poured into renovating the pretty old town on the Neisse river.
Despite its expensive facelift, Goerlitz long struggled to attract tenants for its renovated buildings, where many shops have “For Sale” signs in the windows.
Leading filmmakers and authors also called on the people of “Goerliwood” — as the town is also known in Germany — to shun political extremists or risk isolation.
“Don’t give in to hate and hostility, conflict and exclusion,” read a petition signed by actor Daniel Bruehl (“Goodbye Lenin”) and British director Stephen Daldry.
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