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German report German report
by Euro Reporter
2017-09-01 08:21:46
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German far right down but poised for parliament

It has lost support and been beset by infighting, but the Alternative for Germany is still on course to become the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since World War II. Having started out as an anti-euro party before rising to prominence on an anti-immigration platform, the AfD is polling at between 7 and 10 percent ahead of Germany’s parliamentary election on September 24. That’s down substantially from a high of around 15 percent on the back of the 2015 migration crisis, when the AfD formed part of a populist wave sweeping Europe that threatened to upend the established political order. But it remains comfortably above the 5 percent hurdle parties must overcome to win seats in parliament.

germany_400_01Until recently, the prospect of members of a populist right-wing party taking seats in the Bundestag would have set alarm bells ringing loudly across the German and European political mainstream. The AfD’s decline in the polls and its internal battles have lowered domestic and international concerns for now, but a presence in parliament will give the far right an unprecedented platform in post-war German politics. On a recent summer’s evening in the small town of Jüterbog outside Berlin, Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s two lead candidates for the parliamentary election, stressed the AfD’s key law-and-order, anti-migrant and anti-establishment messages at a town hall-style campaign event. Dressed in his trademark tweed outfit and seated in front of a large German flag, the 76-year-old Gauland addressed an audience of about 150, largely made up of middle-aged men and elderly couples. After a minute’s silence for the victims of terror attacks in Spain a week earlier, he accused mainstream politicians of resignation in the face of Islamic terror across Europe.

“They say we must get used to it. Evidently, terrorism is now normal in this country,” declared the candidate, a former official in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “I do not want to get used to people coming into this country without controls, to being told from above: ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.'” Gauland and his party are campaigning on a platform of shutting borders to refugees, strictly curtailing the role of Islam in Germany and leaving the eurozone. An internal strategy paper written for the 2017 campaign encouraged members “not to shy away from carefully planned provocations” as a way to generate controversy and media attention. But the party’s time-honored tradition of playing with rhetorical fire, such as using Nazi-inspired jargon, may be hurting it. On Saturday, Gauland suggested that Aydan Özoğuz, the government’s commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration, and the daughter of Turkish immigrants, should be “disposed of in Anatolia.” Gauland later said he would not use the phrase again, but has been sued by a prominent ex-judge for inciting racial hatred.

In January, regional parliamentarian Björn Höcke called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.” “For many middle-class protest voters, this crossed a red line,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a professor of politics at the Free University of Berlin. Some 75 percent of voters and even almost 40 percent of AfD supporters agree that the party has not distanced itself enough from right-wing extremism. Gauland is considered a hard-liner on immigration and on social and cultural issues. Fellow lead candidate Alice Weidel represents a more moderate faction, closer to the party’s initial critique of the euro. Weidel, who is openly gay and in a civil partnership with a Swiss woman of Sri Lankan background, appears to have decided to avoid references to her personal life so as not to clash with her party, which hands out fliers at its rallies complaining that “lesbian feminists” are trying to usurp traditional ideas of gender. Founded in early 2013 by a group of Euroskeptics fed up with repeated bailouts for struggling eurozone economies, the AfD soon shifted to anti-immigrant messages, replacing its founder Bernd Lucke with a more combative, right-wing party leader in Frauke Petry.

Petry leapt at the chance to slam Merkel’s welcoming stance toward hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in 2015 as illegal and dangerous, painting a picture of a morally bankrupt elite of politicians and media facilitating the country’s “Islamization.” Buoyed by “told you so” moments like mass sexual assaults by mostly North African and Arab migrants and refugees during the 2016 New Year celebrations in Cologne, the party’s message resonated. “In 2015 and 2016 Germany was extremely divided and polarized, with very emotional discussions” about immigration policy, said political scientist Niedermayer. Because other major parties by and large supported Merkel’s policies, “the AfD’s position on the migrant crisis was a unique selling point,” he said. The AfD won increasing numbers of protest votes from the large pool of non-voters and former supporters of other parties, soon outperforming the traditional heavyweights of German politics, Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats, in some state elections. However, Merkel’s subtle yet unambiguous pivot on refugee policy robbed the AfD of much of its strength. Germany played a key role in the 2016 EU-Turkey deal which, along with fences and tighter border controls in the Balkans, has effectively shut down south Eastern Europe as an access route for illegal migration.

As the chaotic images of refugees and migrants marching into the country across closed highways have receded from the public eye, so has the threat the AfD poses to the political establishment. Merkel has also dropped her defiant “we can do it” migration crisis catchphrase and vowed that “a situation like the summer of 2015 must not be repeated.” She now also supports banning the burqa. In Jüterbog, Gauland told POLITICO that Merkel’s government had hidden rather than solved the problems of migration by getting uncomfortable images out of the news. Although she has taken the wind out of the AfD’s sails, Merkel is likely to hear Gauland making such charges in person on the floor of the German parliament soon. But which faction of the AfD, if any, will dominate in its new parliamentary group remains unclear. Petry’s appeal for a “realpolitik” approach, which would open the way for the AfD to join coalitions with mainstream parties, did not even get a hearing at a congress earlier this year — a development seen as an important victory for Gauland. Petry accused Gauland of pursuing a strategy of “fundamental opposition.”

When it became clear earlier this month that Petry would lose her parliamentary immunity in the Saxony state legislature due to allegations of perjury, Gauland appeared to question his rival’s future in the party. He declined to tell POLITICO whether he backed Petry as a possible AfD parliamentary leader. For Gauland, the party’s aim in parliament is clear: He wants to push for a committee to investigate Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders in 2015 and hopes ultimately that she will be put on trial for making that choice. He admits there is “little reason to hope” that will actually happen. All of the other parties likely to be present in parliament after the election have already made clear they will not cooperate with the AfD.


Foreign Minister joins call to withdraw US nukes from Germany

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has supported Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz’s pledge that he will push for the removal of US nuclear warheads from Germany if elected Chancellor.  “Of course I am convinced that we need to finally start talking about demilitarization again,” Gabriel said at the end of an official visit to the US on Tuesday. “In this regard I agreed with Mr. Schulz’s point that we need to get rid of the nuclear weapons that are in our country.” According to unconfirmed information there are up to 20 US nuclear warheads at the Bundeswehr airbase in Büchel in the Eifel.

Last week Schulz told an election rally in Trier that he would fight to have the weapons removed. “As Chancellor of Germany I would commit to having the nuclear weapons which are stored here removed from the country,” he said ahead of the national vote on September 24th. The SPD leaders have played the role of pacifists in recent months in an attempt to distinguish themselves from Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom they accuse of being too willing to follow US demands on military matters.

In March, after US President Donald Trump called on NATO partners to meet spending commitments, Gabriel described the NATO defence spending target of 2 percent of GDP, as “completely unrealistic for Germany.” But the likelihood of Schulz ever being able to implement his plans for a nuclear-free Germany seem remote. His party is trailing behind Merkel’s conservative CDU by around 14 percent in polling.


Angela Merkel faces protests in Germany's nationalist heartlands

Angela Merkel has faced fierce protests on the campaign trail for next month’s federal elections in Germany, calling into question her strategy of actively targeting regions of the country where right-wing populists have been gathering support. Germany’s first East German chancellor has been heckled and jeered, and her aides physically assaulted, while campaigning in the part of the country she grew up in. Merkel is hoping to be re-elected for a fourth term on 24 September, and her centre-right Christian Democrats have a poll lead over Martin Schulz’s centre-left Social Democrats. On Tuesday, she told a press conference she was targeting the heartlands of populist nationalists Alternative für Deutschland, saying she wanted to “make a stand against the yelling”.

More than one in three of Merkel’s campaign rallies are being held in the five states that used to make up the socialist German Democratic Republic, even though they are home to only about a fifth of the country’s population. But the scale and intensity of protests at some of the widely televised events have overwhelmed organisers. In Brandenburg an der Havel, west of Berlin, Merkel’s rally on Tuesday was accompanied by a 40-minute chorus of jeers after the AfD and the far-right National Democratic Party organised a counter rally. The chancellor’s arrival coincided with NPD supporters unfurling a banner from a hotel window that read “Merkel muss weg” (“Merkel has to go”), a reference to the slogan “The wall has to go” that used to be chanted at protests in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin wall.

In Bitterfeld, in Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD gained 31.9% at state elections last year, Merkel was greeted by protesters waving Russian flags and chanting “Go away”. Last Friday, a 21-year-old campaign aide wearing a T-shirt with the Christian Democratic Union’s logo was taken to hospital after she was assaulted during skirmishes around a rally in Vacha, Thuringia. Local media reported “scary, dangerous situations” as security prevented some protesters from getting too close to the arriving chancellor. During her speeches, Merkel lived up to her promise of making a stand against rightwing populism, telling her audience in Brandenburg that “you don’t solve problems by yelling, but by mucking in”. On the podium in Bitterfeld, she re-stated that her party would not contemplate entering a coalition with either the AfD or the leftwing Die Linke.

Polls released this week indicate that even though the chancellor’s lead over her main competitor, Schulz, remains solidly in double digits, her options for coalition-forming are narrowing. One survey published by the INSA polling institute on Tuesday shows only two realistic options for the next government: another “grand coalition” between Merkel’s CDU and the SPD, or a so-called “Jamaica coalition” between the CDU, the pro-business Free Democrats and the Green party. A leftwing coalition between the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens would fall short of a governing majority, according to most polls.

Merkel and Schulz will go head-to-head in a TV debate on Sunday, during which two pairs of interviewers from Germany’s four largest broadcasters will take turns quizzing the candidates. A change to the format from the last election had reportedly been vetoed by Merkel’s chancellory, a move that one leading broadcaster described as “blackmail” designed to skew the debate in her favour. At her annual summer press conference on Tuesday, Merkel rejected the criticism, saying the format hadn’t necessarily worked in her favour in the past and that she had previously come second in viewer polls after the shows. According to a poll by Forsa, 48% of the 61.5 million German citizens entitled to vote in September say they are planning to watch the debate on Sunday. One recent survey suggests that up to half the German electorate has yet to make up its mind which party to vote for.


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