DRESDEN, Germany — Germany’s anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, whose weekly demonstrations have steadily dwindled, has its sights set on gaining a political foothold when its eastern stronghold city of Dresden goes to the polls Sunday.
At its height, PEGIDA, short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”, rallied up to 25,000 people on the streets of Dresden, where voters will cast ballots after the conservative mayor’s resignation for health reasons.
The group, founded late last year, quickly became beset by internal strife and scandal among its leaders but managed to spur PEGIDA clone groups in other cities, as well as sparking often far bigger counter-protests.
Days before the election, police said around 2,000 supporters attended a campaign rally for PEGIDA candidate Tatjana Festerling held in a picturesque old square between the River Elbe and a castle that once housed the kings of Saxony state.
Above the crowd fluttered dozens of German flags, while placards focused on a gamut of issues from the “lying press”, to decrying Islam and the other political parties, or depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as “Fatima” in a headscarf.
Others denounced President Joachim Gauck as “Uncle Asylum” and showed him dressed in a turban.
From a makeshift stage in a truck, a voice boomed out the campaign slogans that are also plastered on boards across the historic city promising “radical change.”
In campaign speeches, Festerling disagrees with political correctness, calls for a “renaissance” of German culture and condemns those asylum-seekers who have “left family and home because here there’s somewhere nice to live and you get dough from the state.”
The campaign speeches by the 51-year-old divorcee and mother of two also raise the specter of Germany’s supposed decline and have a clear “us against them” bent in their tenor.
Although she comes from the northern port city of Hamburg in the former West, Festerling cultivates an “Ossie” (Easterner) identity among her fellow residents of Dresden, which for decades was closed off in communist East Germany.
“These last weeks you’ve said to me ‘In 1989, we didn’t go out on the streets risking our lives for all this shit’,” she told a crowd this week.
But Festerling gets her strongest response from supporters when she directly attacks Muslims.
“Obviously, right-thinking people are involved when it’s a question of demonstrating against the death penalty,” she said.
“But the deadly poisoning which destroys the peoples of Europe is Islam, and against that, these people don’t go out to demonstrate,” she complained.
Figures dating from 2012 show that Dresden, among the 15 biggest German cities, has the fewest foreigners, at about seven percent.
And as a region, Saxony is among the states with the smallest immigrant population, at 2.8 percent.
Dutch far-right populist lawmaker Geert Wilders came to Dresden in April to support Festerling.
Festerling meanwhile told AFP that she saw in French far-right leader Marine Le Pen “somebody who clearly questions the absence, at the European level as well as national, of a clear policy on asylum rights”.
She is hoping for a “surprise” on Sunday, even if the only poll published ahead of the election, by the Technical University of Dresden, gave her between just one and two percent of votes.
Leading the race is Eva-Maria Stange, who is standing as a sole candidate for the Social Democrats, Greens and far-left Linke. She told AFP she was “saddened” by recent events in her city.
“Dresden must remain a city open to the world. We need people from other countries,” she said.
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