Sunday Herald, March 5 2017

AMONG all of Germany’s political parties the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was the only one to cheer on Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory.

The party, founded just four years ago on the back of the Euro debt crisis, may appear to stand alone but it has managed to gain huge support, sparking concern that this could be Germany’s most significant right-wing force since the 1930s.

AfD achieved success last September in the regional elections when it secured MPs in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, winning 14 per cent of the vote in Berlin while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU scored 17.6 per cent – its worst-ever result in the capital.

The anti-immigration party, which gained a surge in followers in the aftermath of Merkel’s controversial “open door” policy to refugees, is aiming to win its first seats nationally in the federal elections later this year.

It is led by Jörg Meuthen and Frauke Petry, who has previously said border police should “use firearms if necessary” when dealing with refugees. The AfD’s dramatic rise has been fuelled by a similar anti-Islam and anti-establishment rhetoric that elevated Trump to power in the United States.

Ronald Gläser, spokesman for the AfD in Berlin, said its supporters “love Trump”.

“He is anti-mainstream,” added the 43-year-old over a plate of German-produced Haribo sweets in Berlin’s grand state parliament building in Mitte. “This is 100 per cent AfD style. Donald Trump and the United States is different to Petry and Germany but if you look at what we have in common – the anti-mainstream resentment.”

However, cracks are appearing with recent polls down amid party in-fighting. Although the farright has been gaining support in European countries for decades, many Germans felt Nazi history would stop a similar populist uprising.

Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science at the Unviersity of Mainz, said: “In Germany, the elite and public consensus prevented the rise of such a party but the political issues have been on the agenda for a very long time.”

Despite dips in the polls, Arzheimer said he was convinced AfD would be represented in parliament. “For the first time this sort of acceptable farright party has emerged,” he said.

“There have been predecessors like the NPD but they have all been tainted by their fixation with Germany’s Nazi past so it was quite easy to label them as right-wing extremist parties. The new thing about the AfD is that it was started by people who were acceptable.”

Gläser, whose parents came from East Berlin and fled to the West before he was born, said many AfD voters came from former East Germany. “The average voter for AfD would be male, between 30 and 50, and middle or lower middle class,” Gläser said. “In Berlin, we got every seventh vote (in the regional elections). We were the biggest party among working men.”

Gläser said voters live in “communist skyscrapers” in areas of Berlin including Marzahn and Treptow-Köpenick. The party also supports lowering taxes, less interference of government into people’s lives and “any kind of aggressive feminism in Germany”, said Gläser.

Among the voters is Paul Detto, originally from Bearsden near Glasgow who has lived in Berlin for four years. The 27-year-old, whose father is German, put the popularity of the right-wingers down to an increase in terror attacks.

“I think the AfD gets a bit of a bad rap,” he said. “People are very concerned about immigration.” Is he comfortable with the far-right tendencies of the AfD? “If people say we want women to go back to the kitchen and have babies, of course that’s not something I agree with. But you’re never going to be in full agreement with any party.”

MELANIE Amann, a reporter for Der Spiegel and author of Angst für Deutschland (Fear for Germany), said supporters ranged “from Conservatives to right-wing radicals”.

Amann said fans of the Pegida movement – a German nationalist, anti-Islam, far-right political movement founded in Dresden in October 2014 – were also attracted to the party but there were “well-educated upper middle class” voters too.

In recent weeks, three separate polls have shown support for AfD slip below 10 per cent, down from a record high of 15 per cent last September.

A crisis was sparked in mid-January when Björn Höcke, who leads the party in the eastern state of Thuringia, called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s culture of remembering and atoning for the Nazi era, during a speech in a Dresden beer hall.

The centre-left SPD (Social Democratic Party) could also create problems for AfD. It has been surging in polls since Martin Schulz announced his candidacy, while Merkel’s conservatives are losing support.

Among the left swing voters considering Schulz is Julia Schwenke, 40, a German massage therapist who has lived in Berlin for nearly a decade. Schwenke said there was a growing fear over the rise of the far right among left voters in Germany.

“It’s very concerning especially with the history we have in this country,” she said. “You do wonder why people are drawn to such an ideology.”

Simon Brost of the state-funded Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus Berlin (MBR), which works alongside groups like Berlin Against Nazis to fight extremism, said the growth in right-wing politics was always accompanied by violence.

“Right now we are experiencing a series of attacks in Berlin on people who are speaking up against right-wing extremism,” Brost said. “Their cars are being burned, their apartment windows are smashed, insults are written on their walls to try to prevent them from speaking up. Since May 2016, we counted as many as 42 of these attacks and 34 of them in Neukölln.”

Back at Berlin state parliament, Gläser is confident about AfD’s future, with six months to go until the election. “It’s safe to say that Alternative für Deutschland will stay a major force for politics over the next decade,” he said. “It is unlikely we’ll get more than 20 per cent in Germany.

“People are not ready for that, it will take one or more generations to make us the biggest party. We’re only four years old. Having 10 per cent in the polls is a very good thing, I think.”

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