State polls could mark "end of Germany's immunity to populism"

If the leaders of Germany's rising right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party are to be believed, the country is heading for electoral upheaval this Sunday that will change its political landscape for good.

"The AfD is flying high and nothing can stop it," Andre Poggenburg, the party's top candidate in the impoverished eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, said at a campaign rally last month.

Fuelled by popular discontent over a huge influx of mostly Muslim migrants, his party is tearing into Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative voter base ahead of three state elections that will set the scene for a national poll in 2017.

The latest data shows the AfD winning a record vote share in Saxony-Anhalt, which - alongside the south-western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate - is heading to the ballot box in five days' time.

The AfD is polling at a record 19 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt, 12.5 per cent in Baden-Wuerttemberg and 9 per cent in Rhineland-Palatinate. This means it is as good as certain to clear the 5-per-cent hurdle required to enter all three state parliaments.

The AfD has come a long way since its establishment as an anti-euro party during Europe's debt crisis in 2013. Its founder Bernd Lucke envisioned a party that was classically liberal in philosophy and eschewed the traditional language of the right and left.

The party's fortunes went into decline last year amid bitter infighting between its far-right and more moderate factions that eventually resulted in Lucke's ouster.

As discontent grew over Merkel's decision to open Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants, the party mounted a comeback as a right-wing entity under the helm of entrepreneur-turned-politician Frauke Petry.

But the AfD's oft-repeated designation as a protest party is "no longer appropriate," says Matthias Jung, head of the polling firm Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, adding that the party has succeeded where other post-war nationalist entities have failed.

It already sits in five state parliaments - Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia in the former east, and in the city states Hamburg and Bremen - and has extended its manifesto beyond its anti-euro beginnings and its current platform of tighter immigration controls.

Its mix of right-wing policies include tighter controls on abortions to make way for more German children, a referendum on plans to build mosques with minarets and a free-trade agreement with Russia to promote German business interests.

Missteps by its leaders - two of whom recently argued that border police should be allowed the use of firearms to stop migrants illegally entering Germany - have failed to halt the AfD's ascent, and attempts by established politicians to push it to the margins have also come up short.

Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel - vice chancellor to Merkel - recently said the AfD should be monitored by German intelligence agents, while Guenther Oettinger, a German EU commissioner, said that he would shoot himself if Petry were his wife.

"Marginalizing the AfD will backfire - it's an absolute non-starter," says Jung, adding that the party's anti-establishment status appeals to many voters, especially those in the former east that do not feel adequately represented in Berlin.

Experts say Germany's long-standing political status quo in which two major parties - Merkel's Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats - dominate by forming coalitions either with each other or smaller closely-aligned allies is a thing of the past.

"The elections have the potential of being another important step in a subtle and lingering process of structural change in Germanpolitics," says ING chief economist Carsten Breski. A resurgent AfD would mark "the end of Germany's immunity against populism."

Last update: Tue, 08/03/2016 - 20:28

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