It was another political rally of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, this one last week in the eastern German town of Merseburg near Halle.
It drew just 450 people in a city of more than 35,000, according to a reporter from the local newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. They looked like many AfD followers – retirees in dark parkas, young neo-Nazis in leather coats, middle-class citizens obviously not bothered to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with right-wing extremists.
Throughout the program, the party supporters bellowed popular AfD slogans like “Lügenpresse” (lying press) and “Volksverräter” (betrayers of the state) and demands like Chancellor Angela “Merkel needs to go.”
They came to hear the outspoken AfD member Björn Höcke, head of the party in the neighboring state of Thuringia. His rhetoric on this cold evening was also toned down. He spoke of the need of the “German people to feel safe in their own country” and of the future of the country being at risk “by the illegal immigration of an historical dimension.”
Earlier in the week, at a party demonstration in Erfurt, the 43-year-old Mr. Höcke said Germany was being “governed by idiots” and that Ms. Merkel needed to be put into a “straightjacket.”
The broadcasters did us a huge favor - they couldn’t have made it any clearer that all the complaints about the loss of freedom of press and opinion are really true.
He is currently under investigation by state prosecutors in Halle for mass instigation because of statements he made in December – that Germany should be concerned about the spread of people of African origin who prefer to take over space through sheer numbers. He spoke concretely of a “population surplus” in Africa of more than 30 million people.
It's been a dream start to the year for the right-wing populist party AfD, a rising political force in Germany which is upsetting the cosy post-war partisan balance of power between the two big establishment parties, Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats and her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats.
In the past, most small parties in Germany have been relegated to playing an opposition or minor role. Only the Free Democrats and Greens -- which provided the glue to both CDU- and SPD-led ruling coalitions -- have come close to national power.
Now, the AfD – its numbers bolstered by a volatile mix of economic inequality, mass migration, European discontent and fears about the solvency of the euro currency – appears poised to increasingly influence German politics.
The party, which is less than three years old, is garnering 10 percent to 12.5 percent nationally in most polls. No one expects the AfD to take over the German chancellery, but its growing support could make possible an entree into state government. Some argue that at the very least, the party and its followers are forcing Germany's big established groups to move to the right.
Ms. Merkel's decision to allow in more than 1 million refugees has certainly fueled its growth, especially in the former East Germany. The assaults and robbery of hundreds of German women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve by men described as North African and Arab has accelerated the shift to the populist AfD.
So far, the AfD has avoided the stigma of being labeled a neo-Nazi party, which its members claim would be an unfair description. It is a label currently applied to a smaller fringe party, the National Democratic Party, which is avowedly anti-Semitic and racist and regarded by Germany's intelligence services as anti-democratic.
The Constitutional Court is considering banning the NPD, although such attempts in Germany have always faltered.
The AfD party has profited from the German government’s inability to agree on how to cope with the refugees, which has driven a wedge in the right-left national government and isolated Ms. Merkel, who has refused to roll back her open-door immigration policies.
This week, the AfD got more oxygen after state-funded broadcasters excluded its candidates from televised roundtable debates scheduled ahead of elections in three German states on March 13. The AfD said the exclusion was proof it was being unfairly disadvantaged by the country’s political and media elite.
“The broadcasters did us a huge favor,” Kurt Adam, a founder of the AfD party, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “They couldn’t have made it any clearer that all the complaints about the loss of freedom of press and opinion are really true.”
The AfD's lockout in pre-election debates being planned by the public broadcaster SWR drew criticism from many political quarters.
“It’s a scandal,” Klaus Schroeder, a professor who specializes in former Eastern Germany and extremism at the Freie Universität in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “The same officials who are complaining about the Polish government’s intervention of state-funded media are doing the same here.”
(Poland recently adopted a law that gave its conversative ruling party direct control over the top posts running state-funded TV broadcasters. Germany and the European Commission criticized the moves.)
Mr. Adam, a moderate who has distanced himself from party extemists including Mr. Höcke, said he supports faster deportations of refugees not granted asylum, and better border controls. “It’s interesting to see that the Social Democrats also now have many similar demands,” he noted.
Six months ago, many were writing off the euroskeptic, anti-bailout AfD, but now it’s riding high. That puts it on track to enter parliaments in the western German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatine, and Saxony Anhalt in the former east, where it is polling 15 percent.
While former East Germany has been a stronghold for the AfD since it was founded in 2013, the party is also polling at 8 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate and 11 percent in Baden-Württemberg. That shows it could become a political force nationally, and send representatives to the Bundestag, the lower house of German parliament, in the next federal elections in September 2017.
“While the CDU and even (its Bavarian sister partner Christian Social Union) have moved further to the left as part of their right-left coalition, they've created more room for parties on the right,” said Kerstin Völkl, a political science professor at the Martin-Luther University in Hall-Wittenberg, in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition. "And the AfD has clearly benefited as a result."
The AfD's positions are clear and easy to understand, part of its appeal.
“Critics say we’re just an issue party, hopping from one issue to the next,” Dirk Hoffmann, a member of regional AfD party board in Saxony-Anhalt, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “We haven’t struck the euro crisis and the Greek bailout from our list because these issues still exist. But the situation with refugees in this country is clearly a big issue. No one can ignore it and we have taken a position.”
If the refugee crisis continues and the AfD maintains its support, it could become the third-strongest party in the Bundestag after Ms. Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats at the next federal election in September 2017.
But if a week is a long time in politics, 18 months until Germany's next federal election is an eon.
Many analysts think the party has a limited shelf life, but ultimately its fate will be decided by whether or not Ms. Merkel can get a handle on the refugee crisis.
“There is a clear-cut connection between the number of arrivals and the polling figures of the AfD,” said Timo Lochocki, an expert on populism with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
If the German government reduces the numbers of refugees by pressuring E.U. neighbors and Turkey to share the burden, the AfD's support could decline, he argues. But that will likely take a while to happen, and in the interim, the party may only gain in strength.
“It will probably take longer than mid-March before the government policy can show results,” Mr. Lochocki told Handelsblatt Global Edition, who said the party had a good chance of entering the three state parliaments in March.
But even then, its actual political influence should not be overestimated when it comes to the refugee issue.
“The AfD will not lead to an increase in pressure; the real pressure stems from the 80 percent of Germans who are not very happy with the current developments and important wings within the CDU, CSU and the SPD, who want to see the numbers going down,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the AfD has longevity.
“Whether the voters will have a long-term interest ... depends on how the refugee issue and immigration in general develop,” Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics and the University of Mainz, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “It also depends on how the issue of global Islamist extremism develops and what other problems the country will face.”
In hindsight, the AfD’s decision to rebrand itself last summer to focus on immigration was well-timed.
The party was formed to protest Germany’s involvement in the euro zone’s bailouts.
A bitter struggle for leadership ensued, and last summer its founder, Bernd Lucke, a somber economics professor, was ousted in favor of Ms. Petry, a telegenic mother of four from Saxony.
She has pushed the party down a more populist path, focusing on immigration by Muslims, and other conservative themes. Mr. Lucke soon left to form another party.
“When Lucke was leader, they were tilting between a very conservative center party and a right-wing populist party,” said Mr. Lochoki of the German Marshall Fund, adding that under Ms. Petry, “the AfD is clearly a right-wing populist party with strong elements of right-wing extremism.”
It’s no coincidence that Ms. Petry is from eastern Germany, an AfD stronghold. The party already has members in three state parliaments in the former East Germany, including Ms. Petry’s home state of Saxony, which is also where the anti-immigrant Pegida movement was born.
“In the east, you have a wider spread of the protest vote and the AfD feeds on two topics, which is basically a resentment against the refugee policies and a general feeling of anti-elitism,'' Mr. Lochocki said. "This second sentiment is far more prevalent in the east of the Germany and this tends to fuel protest movements and also part explains why the left party is far stronger in the east than the west.”
Mr. Arzheimer argues that party loyalty is a lot looser in eastern Germany. "The party system is relatively new, which many people only voting for the third or fourth time ever in a democratic election," he said. "And there are more non-voters and also more floating voters than in western Germany.”
And concerns about immigration and fear of foreigners is somewhat higher in the east, he maintains. “That is probably because there has been practically no immigration to eastern Germany over the past 15 to 20 years,” he said.
It was Ms. Petry who had argued that the euroskeptic approach was failing. Even at the height of the uncertainty over the Greek bailout last summer, the AfD struggled to make an impact.
In terms of political strategy, she has certainly been proven right.
Ms. Merkel, who has tried to get other European Union partners to help shoulder the burden, is facing increasing calls, even from within her own party, to impose upper limits on the amount of refugees Germany can accept.
Experts say the bickering between Ms. Merkel and in particular her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, is fueling the dip in support for both parties and providing an opening for the AfD.
The spat over barring the AfD from televised political debates has played into the party's hands. Public broadcaster SWR agreed to exclude them after the Rhineland-Palatinate state premier, Malu Dreyer of the SPD, said she would refuse to appear alongside an AfD candidate.
In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD also is being barred from a televised debate under rules that only allow parties currently in state parliament to participate.
“As it stands in January, 2016, the party is a democratically legitimate party in the democratic spectrum in Germany,'' Mr. Lochocki of the Marshall Fund said. "At this point in time, any exclusion of that party, to my understanding, is undemocratic.”
Siobhán Dowling covers European and German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].