After the Chancellor's meeting in Erfurt, Claudia Hepper beamed with joy, but not really because of Olaf Scholz. The doctor's assistant, 46, leans on the snack table and says she hasn't felt alone with a fear for a long time: "I finally saw that I'm not the only one worried about democracy in Thuringia."
The citizens' dialogue in the egapark Erfurt is part of the "Chancellor Talks" series, with which Olaf Scholz has been touring the republic for a year. 150 citizens drawn from applicants can "ask him anything they want" for 90 minutes. There are no topic specifications. The egapark in Erfurt – Federal Horticultural Show grounds, the flower beds are in full bloom, children are playing by the watercourses – is the ninth station, and it is quite a challenge for the chancellor. If there were state elections at the weekend, the AfD with its right-wing extremist leader Björn Höcke would have 34 percent in Thuringia and would be the strongest force. Only two months ago, the first AfD district administrator in Germany was elected in the district of Sonneberg.
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It worries the people who have taken a seat under the large white pavilion that evening. The 150 guests sit in a circle around Olaf Scholz, surrounded by a ring of around 60 press representatives. TV cameras focus on Julia Braband from Erfurt, who wants to know why the federal government is cutting funding for the Federal Agency for Civic Education right now, when anti-democratic tendencies are getting stronger. Klaus Dieter Otto from Erfurt also agrees that enemies of democracy are very popular in Germany and asks what the government intends to do to strengthen trust in politics again. Both receive loud applause and murmurs of agreement.
Olaf Scholz is here to take care of worries and – as always – to appeal to prudence. Fresh from vacation, he's suitably compassionate, suitably articulate, suitably boring. In his summer press conference in mid-July, he still rated the AfD high as a temporary phenomenon. "I am quite confident that the AfD will not do better in the next federal election than in the last one," he said at the time. Not only did the opposition think that was a bit too optimistic.
Scholz now strikes a sharper tone in Erfurt. "There are opponents of democracy, also on the political spectrum. We will not be able to avoid standing up and defending democracy." He avoids speaking directly of the AfD, but makes clear reference to the European election program that the party recently adopted at its party conference in Magdeburg. In it, the AfD calls for the EU to be re-established as a "Confederation of European Nations".
In Erfurt, Scholz recalled that Germany owes much of its prosperity to the European Union. German unity could not have existed without the EU, he says. "In times when there is a lot of uncertainty, it is important to make it clear that we are pursuing a course that will bring us a lot of security in the future."
Scholz's popularity ratings have been on the decline almost consistently since he took office. In order to reconcile people with his politics, he also does what he loves to do in Erfurt: Scholz refers to his own successes. It's a good thing that just this week the Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC decided to set up a new production site in Dresden. The largest direct investment from abroad in the history of Europe, says Scholz to the group and emphasizes again: "The largest" - he raises his index finger - "in history."
Again and again people speak up whose pension is not enough to live on, as they say. A man calculates his wife's pension statement – until even the most patient viewer moans in exasperation and the presenter asks him to finish. Scholz first refers to the introduction of the basic pension, clearly speaks out against a further increase in the retirement age, but gets bogged down when he begins to detail how his own pension will be put together one day. Pension is a core issue of the SPD.
The choreographed event comes to an end after 90 minutes. Nothing went wrong, there was no room for surprises. In front of the entrance, two security men had even collected the drinks cups, just in case, "because of the risk of throwing". But no one threw it and hardly anyone grumbled. Scholz positions himself at the selfie stand with a patient smile. A long line forms. Despite all the criticism, everyone wants a photo with the chancellor.
One student thinks the event could have been longer. A very good format, says a local mayor. It is good that there is an opportunity to be heard. And medical assistant Claudia Hepper has even found new hope. Perhaps Thuringia is not as brown as everyone says.