Germans go to the polls Sunday in an election that will most likely result in a fourth term for Chancellor Angela Merkel, but could also see the first time a far-right party has become part of the Bundestag since the end of World War II.
Support for Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrat party was at 34 percent, while her challenger, Martin Schulz, and his center-left Social Democrats were projected to receive 21 percent of the vote.
But the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, appeared to have more support than the 5 percent of the vote required to get a seat in Germany’s multiparty Bundestag. In fact, the latest polls showed AfD could get as much as 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in parliament.
Schulz addressed the trend at a campaign rally in the western city of Aachen on Saturday, urging his supporters to turn out at the polls to prevent the AfD from gaining more power.
“Young people, think about Brexit,” he said, referencing Britain’s recent vote to withdraw from the European Union. “Think about [U.S. President Donald] Trump. Go vote.”
Merkel was heckled Friday evening at her final stump speech in Munich but used the cacophony to punctuate her message. Emphasizing stability and prosperity in her speech, Merkel said, “The future of Germany will definitely not be built with whistles and hollers.”
Germany is not the only European nation experiencing a rise in support for nationalist parties. France, Austria and Poland have seen similar trends.
But Germany is still recovering from the rule of the far-right Nazi Party last century, whose hold on power in the 1930s and early 1940s led an ethnic cleansing campaign against millions of Jews, Poles and others deemed unwanted.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democrats, has warned that “for the first time since the Second World War, real Nazis will sit in the German parliament.”
Schulz has called the party “a shame for our nation.”
Limited by history
AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, who helped found the party in 2013, told The Washington Post on Saturday that his party’s support had been limited by Germany’s history.
“What is National Socialist in Germany is [considered] out of order and you can’t discuss it correctly. It is very difficult for so-called right-wing parties to gain votes in Germany,” Gauland said.
A former member of Merkel’s party, Gauland said he left because the party changed.
“Angela Merkel changed the CDU from a party that had convictions to a party that’s an empty balloon,” he told the Post. “A lot of decisions of Angela Merkel — transitioning to renewable energy, refugees, changing of the military from conscription to volunteer — ran opposite to what we called in former times ‘the soul of the CDU.’ ”
Berlin-based journalist Thomas Habicht said AfD’s rise in influence was rooted in Germany’s participation in pan-European issues.
“AfD gained support as some voters got the impression [that] the euro crisis caused by Greece, Italy and France cost us too much money,” Habicht told VOA in an email. “Germany contributes 27 percent to the EU budget and some Germans don’t want to finance economical mismanagement in southern Europe.”
Cost of refugee crisis
In addition, the refugee crisis, to which Merkel has pledged German support, is seen by AfD supporters as a burden.
“Since September 2015, we had an influx of 1.25 million asylum-seekers,” Habicht said, noting that caring for them had cost the government $25 billion.
Adding to the complication, he said, is crime. “Last year we had a terror attack at a Berlin Christmas market. It was committed by an asylum-seeker from Tunisia and 12 persons died,” he said.
Yet, Habicht noted, all parties in the Bundestag at the time supported Merkel on the refugee situation. “They were seen as a big chance for us, while the problems of integration were not fully discussed,” he said.
While the presence of a far-right party in parliament may be startling in Germany, where the rule of the Nazis last century orchestrated millions of civilian deaths, Habicht said the AfD influence would be far more subtle.
“I do believe the AfD will be quite isolated in our next Bundestag,” he said. “But indirectly, they will influence government policies.”