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September 22, 2016

Anti-Immigrant Platform Leads German Far-Right Party to Berlin's State Parliament

By Dora Illei

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), continued to lose voters in the September 18 German state election. It won only 17.6 percent of the vote in Berlin, their worst-ever result in the city. Many see this as a consequence of growing xenophobic fears, spurred by far-right rhetoric. This loss follows similar outcomes in other state elections, including in Merkel's home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the CDU received only 19 percent of the vote.  

Meanwhile the Alternative for Germany (AfD)  has now gained seats in 10 out of 16 state parliaments in Germany. AfD is a right-wing party that built its platform on anti-immigration and has been associated with antisemitism. In Berlin it came away with 14.2 percent of the vote, enough for the party to enter the city's parliament for the first time. AfD’s ability to draw voters in both rural states as well as a multi-cultural city like Berlin raises concerns about the spread of anti-immigrant beliefs.  

The AfD was founded in 2013 and has gained support in the past year by focusing on the influx of refugees. It capitalizes on the growing anger towards Merkel's policy of acceptance and resettlement of migrants. The AfD adopted an expressly anti-Islam view, and has argued for banning the burka and requiring all imams in Germany to be vetted by the state.

The party also has ties to the extreme-right, anti-Islam, anti-immigration group Pegida, and the two groups may work together during the 2017 national elections in Germany. Though not all far-right supporters are violent, the German Interior Ministry reported that 90 percent of all antisemitic hate crimes recorded in 2015 and 90 percent of attacks on refugee shelters were committed by far-right supporters. 

The results of these state elections reveal the now undeniable shift in German attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. Angela Merkel is the figurehead for this policy and acknowledged this played a role in the election.

In response to the Berlin election results, Merkel said that she stands by her principled decision to allow over a million refugees into Germany, but acknowledged that the government could have and should have done a better job to manage the arrival of the refugees. She also acknowledged that huge integration challenges remain and that her decisions regarding the refugee crisis were responsible for the low voter turnout for the CDU. There is an urgent need to establish trust in the government’s ability to maintain order and manage the integration process in a way that defuses tensions and helps citizens to come together.

The mayor of Berlin, Michael Muller, spoke out against the right-wing group prior to the election, stating that a high turnout for the party "would be seen around the world as a return of the far-right and the Nazis to Germany." He expressed his anger at the AfD's performance in the election, but stated that "Berlin will remain an international city, open to the world."    

Unfortunately, these anti-immigrant sentiments are not contained within party borders, and even representatives of opposing parties have made disparaging comments concerning refugees. Most recently Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), told a journalists' club that "the worst [type of refugee] is a football-playing altar-serving Senegalese. He has been here for three years—as an economic refugee—we can't get rid of him."

For now, these intolerant views do not go unchallenged. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the federated EKD Protestant church, for example, condemned Scheuer's statement as "fodder for far-right populists."   

Despite the backlash towards anti-immigrant remarks, when high-level public officials openly spout these views it signals the gradual normalization of far-right politics. German journalist Heribert Prantl noted that "the success of the Alternative for Germany is a wake-up call that it can’t be taken for granted that society is liberal and will remain so, nor can it be taken for granted that minorities (and not only the refugees) are and will be respected.”   

The popularity of the AfD highlights the rise of islamophobia, xenophobia, and in some cases antisemitism in German politics. It also mirrors the rise of these prejudices in other European countries.

The United States should commit to helping Germany successfully integrate refugees and combat hate violence to set a positive example for the rest of Europe. German law enforcement is doing its best to protect refugees, prevent hate crimes, and address them when they occur. An offer by the U.S. government to provide a surge of support may be welcome.  American officials must also remain aware of how their own rhetoric can contribute to anti-immigrant, anti-Islam or antisemitic narratives, both domestically and abroad.