The anti-Islam and anti-refugee Alternative for Germany came second in regional elections in Brandenburg and Saxony.
Germany’s main far-right party has expanded its influence in the country with a strong showing in two states during regional elections on Sunday.
The Alternative for Germany party came second in the vote in Brandenburg, where it secured 23.5 percent of the vote, and Saxony, where it won 27.5 percent. The totals represent an 11.3 percent and 17.7 percent increase in vote share respectively.
Both states are based in the country’s east and were part of the former German Democratic Republic - or East Germany.
In two other states that were part of former East Germany- Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt- the AfD is also the second-largest party.
“The AfD is the new Volkspartei [party of the people] in the East,” said Bjoern Hoecke, leader of the party’s Thuringia branch said on Sunday.
While significant support for the AfD, as well as other far-right parties, exists in former West Germany, it has yet to finish in the top two in regional elections.
Its successes in the country’s east mark a remarkable achievement for a party founded in Germany’s economic hub of Frankfurt, which is nestled deep in the west.
From Euroscepticism to the far-right
When it was established in 2013 by a group of economists and academics, the AfD’s party’s platform was driven more by financial protectionism rather than far-right values. Their demands included dropping out of the eurozone and reinstating Germany’s old currency, the Deutsche Mark.
That changed with the refugee crisis that started in 2015 and the migration of more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other countries across the Middle East and Africa in Germany. They were welcomed, initially at least by Chancellor Angela Merkel, but with huge opposition from both the far-right and mainstream political parties.
Since the crisis, the AfD’s platform has shifted to one more vocally anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic and those issues form the basis of its campaigning.
The lurch to the far-right is reflected in the composition of its most senior and popular figures.
One of the party’s strongest figures, Andreas Kalbitz, was revealed by the German media to have attended a Greek Neo-Nazi rally in 2007.
Joerg Urban, the group’s leader in Saxony, worked to bring the AfD closer to the pan-Europe anti-Islamic street protest movement PEGIDA.
Both are members of ‘the Wing’, an intra-party faction led by Hoecke, himself an admirer of the white supremacist Identitarian Movement.
The links to the extreme right are enough to warrant surveillance by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution- Germany’s main internal intelligence service.
Mainstream parties lose out
According to Mustafa Yeneroglu, Head of Turkey’s Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, the results of the regional vote on Sunday confirmed a two-fold trend, the first of which was “the decline of the two major traditional parties”.
Sunday’s results brought bad news for the Christian Democrats, who lost 7.3 percent of the vote in Saxony and 7.4 percent of the vote in Brandenburg. Polling at 32.1 percent and 15.6 percent in total respectively.
The Social Democrats also suffered with a 5.7 point drop to 26.2 percent of voter share in Brandenburg, as well as a 4.7 point drop in Saxony, to 7.7 percent overall.
“The AfD’s victory is a sign of the rising opposition to Germany’s role in carrying the EU migration and refugee burden,” Yeneroglu said. “It shows the failure of the ruling Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in developing economic strategies in former Eastern Germany states.”
The surge is not yet over for the AfD with the party expected to do well in Thuringia when its poll is held on October 27. The party is expected to grab more than 20 percent of the vote share- more than twice its 2014 showing.
According to German political analyst Timo Schmidt, the success of the AfD in the east was down to a number of reasons.
He told TRT World that in the east: “The population is ageing faster than in the west, unemployment averages 6.6 percent (compared to 4.7 percent in the west), and average per capita income is €29,477 (compared to €40,301 in the west).”
Only 37 of the country’s 500 largest companies had their headquarters in the east, he added.
“It also thrives on frustrations, a sense of lack of recognition and visibility. For example, of 17 federal government ministers, only one, Angela Merkel, has a constituency in the former East Germany.”
But these frustrations could only be converted into support for the far-right through the AfD’s exploitation and misrepresentation of the situation, according to the University of California, Davis, academic, Professor Giovanni Peri.
”It is politically and psychologically much easier to blame a bad situation on others than on something as abstract as digital change or globalisation,” he explained in an interview with TRT World.
“That is precisely what anti-immigrant parties like the AfD are exploiting. They do not have a solution to the real problem, but they are presenting a guilty party. This distracts from how difficult it is for politicians to find a good answer to these major economic trends,” he added.
According to political analyst Timo Schmidt, Germany’s ruling elites need to act to prevent further expansion in support for the far-right
“It [Germany] cannot allow such a democratic divide to widen, we are risk of a terrible historical regression,” he said.