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ELECTIONS

German activists stage anti-racism protest ahead of key state polls

Thousands of civil society activists are to mount a march against hate and racism on Saturday in Dresden, a week before state elections when far-right party AfD is projected to make huge gains.

German activists stage anti-racism protest ahead of key state polls
A previous demonstration using the slogan 'unteilbar' (indivisible) in Leipzig in July. Photo: DPA

Under the banner “indivisible”, a broad coalition of artists, unionists and politicians will gather in the eastern German city to urge voters to reject exclusion which they argue is championed by right-wing extremists.

The three-hour protest on Saturday afternoon afternoon will be staged in the picturesque baroque city, one of the most popular tourism destinations in the former communist east.

But Dresden is also the cradle of the Islamophobic movement Pegida, and the 
state of Saxony is a stronghold of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.

Organisers expect at least 10,000 people to turn up at the protest, while about 70 kilometres away, the co-leader of the AfD Alexander Gauland is due to hold a rally in the city of Chemnitz.

New polls show the AfD party running neck and neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party in Saxony.

In the state of Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, some surveys even see the AfD topping the polls, which would be a major new blow for Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD).

If a strong showing by the AfD is confirmed in both regional polls, it could throw Merkel's coalition into a new crisis by potentially heightening calls for the SPD to pull the plug on the partnership.

For the organisers of Saturday's march, the regional elections, together with October 27th polls in the state of Thuringia, would be the “moment of truth for democracy”.

“We want to show that there are more people on the side of solidarity than on the side of hate,” they vowed.

Under the banner #indivisible, the collective of activists managed to get a quarter of a million people on the streets in Berlin last October to defend inclusion and unity.

That march was organised with Germany still shocked by xenophobic attacks in a Saxony city, Chemnitz, in the aftermath of the stabbing of a German by a migrant.

AfD politicians then also joined in a silent march through Chemnitz alongside the head of Pegida, as well as neo-Nazis and other hooligans.

Since its entry into the Bundestag after the 2017 general elections, the far-right AfD has shaken up German politics, including breaching taboos such as openly questioning Germany's atonement culture over World War II. 

Its anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric has proved attractive to those resentful of Merkel's decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers since the 2015 refugee crisis.

The former communist east has been most receptive to the AfD, as part of the population feels left behind economically as villages are depleted of younger inhabitants, many of whom have headed to western Germany for better paying jobs or opportunities.

But Saxony's state premier, Michael Kretschmer of Merkel's CDU party, warned that a win by the AfD could acerbate the problem by scaring off investors and foreign talent.

“We're talking about jobs here and economic opportunities. The people should take that into account when they vote,” Kretschmer told daily newspaper Tagesspiegel.

READ ALSO: Man jailed for Chemnitz knife killing that sparked far-right protests

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ELECTIONS

Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

Best known as an anti-migrant party, Germany's far-right AfD has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to court a new type of voter ahead of regional elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday: anti-shutdown activists.

Germany's far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance
Björn Höcke, party chairman in Thuringia, at an election event in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt on May 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” is how Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, views the measures ordered by the government to halt Covid-19 transmission.

The anti-shutdown stance seems to be paying off in the former East German state. The party is riding high in the polls and even stands a chance of winning a regional election for the first time.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD chooses hardline team ahead of national elections

Surveys have the AfD neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, with the Bild daily even predicting victory for the far-right party on 26 percent, ahead of the CDU on 25 percent.

In Saxony-Anhalt’s last election in 2016, the CDU was the biggest party, scoring 30 percent and forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

But the CDU has taken a hammering in the opinion polls in recent months, with voters unhappy with the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

Social deprivation

A victory for the AfD would spell a huge upset for the conservatives just four months ahead of a general election in Germany — the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.

They started out campaigning against the euro currency in 2013. Then in 2015 they capitalised on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The party caused a sensation in Germany’s last general election in 2017 when it secured almost 13 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the largest opposition party.

Troubled by internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups, the party has more recently seen its support at the national level stagnate at between 10 and 12 percent.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD investigated over election ties

The party is also controversial in Saxony-Anhalt itself. In state capital Magdeburg, posters showing local candidate Hagen Kohl have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and the words “Never again”.

For wine merchant Jan Buhmann, 57, victory for the far-right party would be a “disaster”.

“The pandemic has shown that we need new ideas. We need young people, we need dynamism in the state. For me, the AfD does not stand for that,” he said.

Yet the AfD’s core supporters have largely remained unwavering in the former East German states.

For pensioner Hans-Joachim Peters, 73, the AfD is “the only party that actually tells it like it is”.

Politicians should “think less about Europe and more about Germany”, he told AFP in Magdeburg. AfD campaigners there were handing out flyers calling for “resistance” and “an end to all anti-constitutional restrictions on our liberties”.

Political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University puts the AfD’s core strength in eastern Germany down to “social deprivation and frustration” resulting from problems with reunification.

The party’s latest anti-corona restrictions stance has also helped it play up its anti-establishment credentials, adding some voters to its core base, he said.

Other east German states in which the AfD has a stronghold, such as Saxony and Thuringia, continue to have the highest 7-day incidences per 100,000 residents in the country. Saxony-Anhalt’s 7-day incidence, however, currently is below the national average (31.3) as of Wednesday June 3rd.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Hijab snub

Funke predicted the AfD would attract broadly the same voters in
Saxony-Anhalt as it did in 2016, when it won 24 percent of the vote.

“Some have dropped off because the party is too radical, some radicals who didn’t vote are now voting and some of those who are anti-corona are also voting for the AfD,” he said.

The Sachsen-Anhalt-Monitor 2020 report, commissioned by the local government, found that the main concern for voters in the region was the economic fallout from the pandemic. But the AfD’s core selling point — immigration and refugees — was number two on their list.

According to AfD candidate Kirchner, many people in Saxony-Anhalt still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

“And I think they are right,” he said at a campaign stand in Magdeburg decked in the AfD’s signature blue. “Who is going to rebuild Syria? Who is going to do that if everyone comes here?”

When a young woman wearing a hijab walked past the stand, no one attempted to hand her a flyer.

By Femke Colborne

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