Migration issue helping far right in East Germany
TUNIS - The next series of mayoral and state elections in Germany could prop up the far right in the country’s eastern states, analysts said.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s third largest party since elections in 2017, won 11% of the seats in EU parliamentary elections in May. In Saxony and Brandenburg in eastern Germany, the AfD finished first ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
The German far right has sought support by playing on the socio-economic divide that separates former East and West Germany three decades since the country’s reunification.
Despite huge investments made in the region by the federal government, the former East Germany is economically depressed, especially as the country’s negotiates a transition to renewable energies from coal-based activities. Income in many parts of eastern Germany is 15% less than the former West.
With much of the population having left the eastern part of Germany and few immigrants settled there, eastern areas are demographically in decline.
Joachim Ragnitz, a professor of economics at Dresden University of Technology, told the Financial Times: “There are a handful of cities that are growing but elsewhere regions are shrinking rapidly and ageing rapidly at the same time. This has major economic implications: companies will not be able to find workers and regional disparities will rise sharply.”
The economic quandaries of the east have been a boon to the far right as it claimed the federal government has been neglectful of East Germans, contrary to its generosity with refugees since 2015.
Last November, AfD proposed sending 500,000 Syrian refugees back to Syria, claiming the war was “nearly over.”
The misgivings of East Germans are affecting their trust in the country’s democratic system. A 2019 poll indicated that 42% of East German respondents said they have confidence in the country’s democracy; 77% of their fellow citizens in the West said they do.
The AfD uses differences in the geographic divide to shape its narrative. “Eastern Germans are wired differently, first and foremost because the classic social setup of the West is non-existent in the East,” AfD leader Alexander Gauland said recently.
It also uses the issue of migration to drive a wedge between parts of the country and boost its support in the former East Germany. Following the EU elections, a Berlin branch of the AfD posted a map describing the west and the south of the country as a “German Caliphate.” It pasted the German flag over the country’s eastern regions where AfD won most votes.
The party removed the Facebook post after a strong public backlash.
During the EU election campaign, AfD used a reproduction of the 1866 Jean-Leon Gerome painting “The Slave Market,” which shows a nude, fair-skinned woman surrounded by Middle Eastern-looking men in robes.
The painting’s reproduction was posted on billboards with a message warning that Germany could turn into a “Eurarabia,” an Islamophobic term used by far-right groups in the West in their theory of a looming “population displacement” that could transform Europe into a Muslim-majority land.
The Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts protested the use of the Gerome painting because the work is part of its permanent collection. However, with the painting being in the public domain, the institute could not prevent the AfD from using it.
Ronald Glaeser, a spokesman for the Berlin branch of the AfD, turned down the request to stop using “The Slave Market,” claiming the party’s message had educational value.
“The German public has the right to find out about the truth about the possible consequences of illegal mass immigration,” he said.
The eastern Germany city of Gorlitz is to have a run-off mayoral election after a first-round vote ended with AfD candidate Sebastian Wippel in first with 36.4% of the vote. If Wippel defeats CDU candidate Octavian Ursu in the run-off, Gorlitz would become the first major town in Germany with an AfD mayor.