Headline: Lusatia Goes to the Polls: Civil Society under Threat

Die Spinnerei e.V. ist in der Lausitz tätig und macht Angebote zu Naturbildung und Kultur. Das Team berichtet von regelmäßigen verbalen und in jüngster Zeit auch körperlichen Angriffen.
The Spinnerei e.V. is a civil society initiative in Lusatia for outdoor education and culture. The initiative’s team has faced verbal and, more recently, physical attacks. IASS/Sophia Schimd

2019 is a decisive election year in Brandenburg and Saxony with local and European elections taking place in the federal states on 26 May and state elections scheduled for the autumn. Current forecasts suggest that the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) will extend its reach in both states, especially in rural areas.

Irrespective of the outcome of these elections, Lusatia is entering a period of considerable upheaval with the planned phaseout of coal-fired power generation over the next nineteen years, as proposed by the Coal Exit Commission in February. Lawmakers are now wrangling over the details of its implementation. Under the proposal, financial assistance will be provided to Lusatia and other affected regions to cushion the societal impacts of the coal phaseout, which is a pillar of the German government’s climate policy. The report by the Coal Exit Commission also calls for efforts to strengthen opportunities within this process for democratic engagement and the participation of local populations.

This is all well and good. But the revitalisation of these regions cannot succeed without an active civil society. And the good news is that a large number of grass-roots initiatives have emerged that are keen to take up the challenge of shaping a new and sustainable vision for a Lusatia without coal. Among them are local associations and coalitions that organise cultural and sporting activities, promote democracy in public life through events and initiatives, support minorities and newcomers, and advocate for schools and local environmental concerns, as well as innovative business ideas to strengthen the local economy. Funding applications submitted to the “Participation Fund for Saxony” (Sächsischer Mitmach-Fonds) highlight the wealth of creative ideas for transforming the region. Despite this year’s relatively short application period, a large number of applications were received, of which only a few will be selected due to financial constraints.

However, talks with local initiatives also reveal a challenging operating environment for civil society projects, which often eclipses the issue of funding shortfalls. It appears that local government bodies and processes are not yet geared towards or sufficiently responsive to the needs of civil society actors.

Particularly worrying, however, is the fragile ground on which democracy stands in parts of Lusatia. This is especially evident in the village of Neustadt, where the association “Eine Spinnerei - vom nachhaltigen Leben e.V. Naturbildung und Kulturangebote” (Weaving a Sustainable Future – Nature Education and Cultural Activities) is based. The association has been the driving force behind numerous initiatives since it was established in 2013. But the founders have encountered considerable hostility over the years. The association’s mailbox was bombed in 2013, and attacks have intensified in recent months since the association nominated one of its members to run as an independent candidate in the local elections. This animosity and the lack of support that the association has received from local politicians and government bodies highlight the precarious nature of freedom of opinion and expression in the region. These freedoms are nevertheless a basic prerequisite for a democratic society, and the forthcoming elections will reveal the extent to which citizens can use their vote to influence socio-economic transformations in Lusatia.

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