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Far-right AfD eyes control of German town favourite of Hollywood

AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel won the first round, adding to a strong showing by his party in September state polls — but mainstream parties have thrown their support behind his rival from the ruling centre-right CDU

Görlitz, Germany | AFP |  Its cobblestone lanes and Baroque architecture are so quaint that Hollywood directors often come calling, but the German town of Goerlitz may soon have a new claim to notoriety.

A run-off election in the small city of around 55,000 people on the Polish border on Sunday could end in the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party winning its first mayoral seat.

Mainstream parties have thrown their support behind the centre-right contender from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, meaning AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel is seen as unlikely to triumph.

But Wippel won the first round in late May with 36 percent of the vote, sending shockwaves through the country already bracing for a strong AfD showing in Goerlitz’s Saxony state in a September election.

His closest competitor, 51-year-old Octavian Ursu of the CDU, drew 30 percent and will face Wippel in the run-off.

The Romanian-born Ursu, who came to Germany as a musician in 1990, argues that only a “family-friendly Goerlitz that’s open to the world” will manage to prosper.

Leading filmmakers and authors have led a call for Goerlitz voters to shun the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim party or risk isolation by the arts community and tourists.

British director Stephen Daldry, who filmed “The Reader” starring Kate Winslet partly in Goerlitz, actor Daniel Bruehl (“Goodbye Lenin”) and writer Bernhard Schlink have all signed an anti-AfD petition: “Don’t give in to hate and hostility, conflict and exclusion.”

The city, which was spared damage by Allied bombing during World War II, has also played backdrop to Hollywood blockbusters including “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

With hordes of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of stars like George Clooney, Emma Thompson or Jeff Goldblum at work, the town nicknamed Goerliwood has since become a tourist magnet with its spruced up historic city centre nestled on the River Neisse.

– ‘Win back trust’ –

Despite the Tinseltown glamour, Goerlitz is not immune to many of the problems plaguing Saxony and other regions of Germany’s former communist east.

Almost 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Goerlitz has suffered from an exodus of talented young people to the richer west.

A burly ex-policeman with close cropped hair and a passion for martial arts, Wippel has adopted the campaign motto: “I won’t forget anyone, and certainly not our Goerlitzers!”

He is surfing a wave of support, particularly in the east, for the AfD, which has railed against Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow in around 1.2 million asylum seekers.

The party is now represented in all 16 of Germany’s regional parliaments and polling as the most popular party in both Saxony and Brandenburg state, which will both go to the polls on September 1, followed by Thuringia on October 27.

The battle for Goerlitz’s city hall has taken on outsize importance as a bellwether for the three state elections, with the future of Merkel’s fragile right-left coalition potentially hanging in the balance.

Wippel said he was not taking the petition against him very seriously, caling it a hollow gesture “by people who don’t live in Goerlitz”.

Ursu of the CDU told AFP he would “strive to win back the trust” lost by the traditional parties.

– ‘Uncontrolled immigration’ –

Saxony has received more assistance from the European Union than any of Germany’s states, with 2.75 billion euros (3.1 billion) earmarked for the period 2014-2020.

Nevertheless, the eurosceptic AfD managed to come out on top in the European elections on May 26.

“A whole generation — my generation — is no longer there,” Wippel, 36, told AFP, promising to “make them come back” if he becomes mayor.

One look around its tidy streets proves his point. Many shops have “for sale” signs in the window and the locals seem overwhelmingly aged.

Wippel said his strategy to make Goerlitz, which was a major regional trading hub in the Middle Ages, more attractive would include placing a premium on security and fighting immigration.

Goerlitz has seen an influx of around 1,000 refugees, including hundreds from war-ravaged Syria, which has made many locals uneasy.

“Things have changed a lot in this town in a short time, particularly with regard to uncontrolled immigration,” said an AfD voter in his 50s who gave his name only as Karsten.

He said his choice on Sunday was for the party “that takes the time to listen” to residents.

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