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Germany’s far-right AfD seeks to capitalize on pandemic ahead of election

Running with the slogan ‘Germany. But normal,’ anti-immigration party apparently targeting anti-lockdown protesters and COVID-19 deniers

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

DRESDEN, Germany (AFP) — The far-right AfD will firm up its election manifesto this weekend as Germany prepares for the post-Merkel era, with the party seeking to reverse a lag in support amid infighting and an ailing effort to capitalize on the pandemic.

Members of the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany gathered on Saturday despite coronavirus restrictions for a two-day congress in Dresden, to finalize their strategy ahead of the general election on September 26.

With Angela Merkel stepping down after 16 years as chancellor, the AfD’s “Merkel must go” slogan will need an overhaul.

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

But it has lost support as Germany reels from the coronavirus pandemic and has lately been plagued by internal divisions, links to radical COVID-19 deniers, and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups.

Latest surveys have the party polling at between 10 and 12 percent, with Merkel’s CDU/CSU at around 27 percent and the surging Greens not far behind.

‘Lockdown mania’

People gather for a demonstration against coronavirus restrictions with the slogan ‘The end of the pandemic – freedom day,’ in Berlin, Germany, August 1, 2020. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

In key regional elections in the southern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March, the AfD saw its support plunge by around a third.

The drop in support has coincided with AfD members courting controversy by joining anti-vaxxers and “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) at various demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions.

AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen on Saturday vowed to dispel “these orgies of bans, these jailings, this mania for locking down.”

With Merkel and state leaders expected to tighten infection control measures further Sunday, the far-right unveiled its election slogan of “Germany. But normal” — at least in part targeting coronavirus restrictions.

During a violent mass protest in November, AfD members were accused of letting far-right activists into the Reichstag parliament building.

Police officers try to push back protesters on a blocked road between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building, home of the German federal parliament, as people attend a protest rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, November 18, 2020 against coronavirus restrictions in Germany. (Fabian Sommer/dpa via AP)

The party has also been hit by revelations that the government intends to place it under surveillance for posing a threat to democracy.

Media reports in March said the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) had classified the AfD as a “suspected case” of right-wing extremism, paving the way for intelligence agents to tap its communications and possibly use undercover informants.

The AfD is challenging the classification in emergency proceedings, accusing the BfV of not taking sufficient care to prevent the information from leaking to the press.

Against a backdrop of infighting between the hard right and a more moderate wing around Meuthen, motions calling for the party to elect its top candidates for the September elections were withdrawn.

Meuthen wants the decision to be made later by a vote among all party members.

The AfD has long been bitterly divided between those who support Meuthen and a more radical faction, known as The Wing, loyal to firebrand Bjoern Hoecke.

Another motion from a handful among the 600 delegates calling for Meuthen’s removal was rejected, although a second that would impose term limits for the party leadership could yet see him leave by the end of the year.

Pariah party

The election program of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) far-right party and a face mask are seen on the floor in Dresden, eastern Germany on April 9, 2021, ahead of the general elections taking place on September 26, 2021. (JENS SCHLUETER / AFP)

The AfD is expected to choose a two-person team to lead it into the election, with Meuthen’s co-president Tino Chrupalla considered the likely contender.

Many members would like to see him joined by economist and parliamentary group co-leader Alice Weidel, but Meuthen’s supporters would prefer the more moderate Joana Cotar.

Starting out as an anti-euro outfit in 2013, the AfD capitalized on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The hard-right party has often courted controversy by calling for Germany to stop atoning for its World War II crimes.

Parliamentary co-leader Alexander Gauland once described the Nazi era as just “a speck of bird poo” on German history.

The AfD has “dramatically radicalized itself” in recent years, which has “divided the party in two”, political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University, who specializes in the far-right, told AFP.

He noted a series of deadly right-wing extremist attacks against immigrants and Jews committed since 2019 had left the political far-right “isolated” while the AfD had only managed to offer a “chaotic back-and-forth” in the face of the pandemic.

“For now it is not considered a party with which you could form a coalition,” given the political mainstream’s still united front in treating the AfD as a pariah.

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