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Alternative for Germany | The party can’t go on

For the first time in its post-Nazi history, a political party in Germany is officially under surveillance. Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, also known as the BfV, has classified the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) as a “suspected case” with links to right-wing extremism. This means German security agents can monitor AfD party members, tap their phones, read their emails, and scrutinise the party’s sources of funding.

Also read: How serious is Germany’s far-right problem?

AfD leaders reacted angrily to the decision, describing it as a politically motivated attempt by the Angela Merkel-led government to sabotage its prospects in an election year by putting them “in the Nazi corner”. It is true that the move comes at the beginning of an election season. Six of Germany’s 16 States go to the polls this year while the country will hold general elections in September, when Ms. Merkel will depart as Chancellor. However, except for the AfD, which has challenged the decision in court, most parties have welcomed the move.

The decision marks the culmination of a two-year long investigation into the activities of the AfD’s youth division and the ‘Flugel’ (the Wing), an extremist unit of the party. As the courts review the legality of monitoring the entire party, the BfV has said, for now, incumbent lawmakers and those contesting the September elections will be exempt from surveillance, indicating that the tracking would be confined to lower-level party members. But formal surveillance, even if a limited one, could impact the perception battle ahead of the elections and put the AfD at a disadvantage.

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a euro-sceptic party. But in 2015-16, when Germany welcomed 1.2 million refugees, it morphed into a platform for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politics, after which its popularity soared. In the 2017 federal elections, it emerged as the largest Opposition party, securing 12.6% vote and 94 seats. The party is also represented in all the 16 State Parliaments and the European Parliament.

Also read: Germany’s AfD conundrum

‘Sense of betrayal’

The AfD has always enjoyed greater support in what used to be East Germany, in States like Saxony, Brandedburg and Thuringia. In these parts, sections of society that could not plug into the prosperity of post-unification Germany felt abandoned by the federal government. Their resentment was already high when the Merkel administration began to welcome refugees and spend on their welfare. The AfD stoked the sense of betrayal felt by many in eastern Germany — the sense that a government that has done little for them, even though they ‘arrived’ in 1990, is seemingly laying out the red carpet for ‘foreigners’ who are not even German, don’t speak their language, and follow a religion that “isn’t German”. The AfD’s manifesto proclaims that “Islam does not belong to Germany”.

As the AfD’s popularity rose, Germany saw a spike in hate crimes targeting immigrants. As per official figures, the country witnessed around 900 Islamophobic hate crimes in 2020, with 80 mosques attacked during the year. The deadliest attack was the shooting spree by a far-right extremist in Hanau in February 2020, in which 11 people were killed. At the same time, AfD politicians have been serial offenders when it comes to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and even anti-Semitic rhetoric, with some going so far as to break the nation’s biggest taboo — trying to whitewash its Nazi past. For instance, the party’s leader of the Opposition Alexander Gauland described the Nazi era as just a “speck of bird poo” on German history. The AfD’s Thuringia head Bjorn Hocke said Germany was “crippled” by its “politics of remembrance” about the Holocaust and must “reverse it by 180 degrees”. Speaking of Muslim migrants, another AfD politician Christian Luth said, “We can always shoot them later. That’s not an issue. Or gas them, as you wish.” The AfD had to expel Luth following public outrage over this comment.

Right-wing violence

Frequent outbreaks of right-wing violence — a pro-migrant politician was shot dead in June 2019, and a synagogue was attacked in Halle in October 2019 — appears to be one of the reasons behind the recent dip in the AfD’s popularity. The other factor has been infighting, with some leaders calling for extremist members to be expelled in the larger interests of the party, which they want to project as a viable alternative for a conservative middle class that wants nothing to do with neo-Nazis. Instances of right-wing violence have also sparked large rallies demanding that the state act against extremist platforms.

While AfD leaders have sought refuge in free speech rights, Germany’s post-War Constitution is stringent on one aspect: preventing the return of Nazi ideology. As the Merkel administration moves to stop the normalisation of hate, it believes it has public sentiment and the Constitution on its side. With right-wing populism on the rise in many parts of the world, it is significant that the political establishment in Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, is bucking the trend of liberal-centrists shying away from confronting the far-right head-on, and instead, showing the political sagacity to wield the powers of the state in defense of the constitutional order. Setting this example could well be Ms. Merkel’s parting gift to Germany, Europe and beyond.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 8:50:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/alternative-for-germany-the-party-cant-go-on/article34007818.ece

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