German far-right party wins its first county leadership post, rising in polls

Victory of AfD’s candidate in rural Sonneberg area reflects rising popularity of anti-immigration party; Jewish group says party’s surge is something we ‘cannot simply accept’

Far-right German lawmaker Robert Sesselmann, center, visits a butcher shop in Sonneberg, Germany on April 27, 2023. (Robert Sesselmann)
Far-right German lawmaker Robert Sesselmann, center, visits a butcher shop in Sonneberg, Germany on April 27, 2023. (Robert Sesselmann)

BERLIN, Germany — The far-right Alternative for Germany party saw its first head of a county administration elected Sunday in a rural eastern region, a win that came as national polls showed its support at record levels.

A runoff election in Sonneberg county pitted Alternative for Germany’s candidate, Robert Sesselmann, against center-right rival Jürgen Köpper. Official figures showed Sesselmann, who had been well ahead in the first round two weeks ago, winning by 52.8% to 47.2%.

Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the victory unacceptable.

“This is a watershed [moment] that this country’s democratic political forces cannot simply accept,” Schuster, whose organization declined to meet AfD officials or recognize the party as a legitimate political movement, told the RND Media broadcaster.

The council and many other German Jews explained that their rejection of AfD was due to multiple antisemitism scandals within the party, and because of remarks by prominent AfD members that were seen to glorify Germany’s Nazi past.

Alexander Gurland, the party’s honorary chairman, said in 2017 that Germans “don’t have to be held accountable anymore for those 12 years [of the Nazi regime].” He added: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

Joerg Urban, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Saxony, is seen on display, as he gestures while addressing delegates during an AfD party congress in Dresden, eastern Germany, on April 10, 2021. (JENS SCHLUETER / AFP)

Sonneberg has a relatively small population of 56,800, but the win is a symbolic milestone for AfD. The 10-year-old party was polling between 18% and 20% in national surveys of late.

It has been riding high, as center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition, with the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, faces strong headwind over high immigration, a plan to replace millions of home heating systems, and a reputation for infighting, while inflation remains high.

Köpper’s center-right opposition Union bloc leads national polls, with lackluster support ratings of just under 30%.

AfD first entered the national parliament in 2017, after campaigning strongly against migration, following an influx of refugees to Europe during the preceding years. More recently, it has come out against German support for Ukraine.

Despite being largely shunned by mainstream parties, AfD has established itself as a durable force, particularly in the formerly communist and less prosperous east. An AfD candidate made it into last week’s runoff mayoral election in Schwerin, the capital of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but was easily defeated.

Sonneberg is located in Thuringia, one of three eastern regions that holds state elections next year.

AfD has drifted to the right over the years and faces increasing scrutiny from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.

Its regional branch in Thuringia is headed by a prominent figure on the party’s hard right, Björn Höcke, who recently was charged by prosecutors over his alleged use in a 2021 speech of a slogan favored by the Nazis’ SA stormtroopers.

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