To the casual visitor, Bitterfeld is a quiet town in the heart of East Germany set on an idyllic lake and dotted with parks and pretty neo-Gothic churches. The way Rene K describes it, it’s a dystopian nightmare. African and Syrian immigrants hurl abuse at locals at the train station, he says. Youths are drunk or stoned from six in the morning. Women don’t dare leave the house without pepper spray.
Everywhere he looks, Rene K, a 29-year-old volunteer fireman who asked that his surname not be used, sees only “social decline”. For him, Bitterfeld is a town blighted by unemployment and austerity, where the arrival of hundreds of refugees has shattered the social peace and left public services struggling.
“We the people are sick and tired, and something has to change,” he says.
That desire for change drove him into the arms of Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a rightwing, anti-immigration party that has shaken up the normally staid world of German politics and created a major problem for Angela Merkel, the country’s once unassailable chancellor.
Rene K voted AfD in regional elections last March — and he was not the only one. The party garnered 32 per cent of the vote in Bitterfeld, its best local result so far in any German election.
Since then, the party has gone from strength to strength. In last Sunday’s regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Ms Merkel’s own constituency is located, the AfD pushed her Christian Democratic Union into third place — a stinging defeat for a party that is not used to losing. One successful AfD candidate, Leif-Erik Holm, called the result “the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship”.
Days later, Ms Merkel told the Bundestag that the AfD was “a challenge for us all in this building”. Her hard-hitting speech was unusual in that she referred to the AfD by name — an acknowledgment of the threat it poses to all Germany’s main parties, not just the CDU.
The AfD is just one of a crop of anti-establishment parties that have sprung up to harness voter discontent across Europe and beyond. Like Italy’s Five Star movement, Spain’s Podemos and the UK Independence party in Britain, it claims to represent people ignored by a “rigged” system run by unaccountable elites. All of them feed off frustration at stagnating living standards since the financial crisis and anger at globalisation, and the cultural diversity it has brought with it.
But the real engine of the AfD’s success was Ms Merkel’s decision last year to open Germany’s borders to tens of thousands of asylum-seekers. Even middle-of-the-road voters who abhor the AfD wonder how the country can absorb so many immigrants, many of them — according to official data — ill-educated villagers from Iraq and Syria with few prospects of finding a job in one of the western world’s most sophisticated economies.
That disquiet has grown since two terror attacks in Bavaria in July committed by refugees with apparent ties to Isis.
Just three years since it was created by a group of Eurosceptic economists, the AfD has seats in nine of Germany’s 16 regional assemblies. Based on current trends it should easily clear the 5 per cent threshold to enter the Bundestag in next year’s general election.
In her speech to parliament on Wednesday, Ms Merkel fiercely defended her refugee policy. The current situation was a “whole lot better” than a year ago: fewer asylum-seekers were entering the country, the government had tightened the rules and an EU-Turkey deal to limit the migrant influx into Europe was working.
Besides, she insisted, the refugees who had streamed in over the past couple of years would not change Germany — an implicit riposte to Mr Holm’s claim that uncontrolled immigration was turning the country into a “caliphate”.
“Germany will remain Germany, with everything that we love and is dear to us,” she said, while the AfD only has “slogans and simple answers”.
But those slogans are resonating with voters. Germany “is going through a political upheaval of historic proportions”, said Jörg Meuthen, the party’s co-leader, the day after Sunday’s result. “It is clear that the old parties are tottering more and more.” The AfD was, he said, “turning the country upside down”.
The party’s support base is widening, said Mr Holm. It was not, as some suggested, merely a vehicle for those left behind by globalisation. It appeals to “ broad sections of the population”, not only workers but the self-employed and small businessmen. And it has “strengthened democracy”: people who traditionally never bothered to vote were now turning out in droves, he said, to elect the AfD.
Share of the vote won by the AfD in Bitterfeld, its best election result
But some observers think the AfD is just a flash in the pan that will quickly implode under the pressure of greater public scrutiny, like other protest parties that have abounded in Germany’s postwar history. Already, it is riven by ideological tensions between far-right nationalists and the party’s more pragmatic, moderate wing.
“The risk for the AfD is that it could become a victim of its own success,” says Hendrik Träger, an expert on rightwing parties at Leipzig University. “When it enters all the regional parliaments and the Bundestag, it will become part of the political establishment. And it will become increasingly difficult for it to present itself as the new guys who are going to change everything.”
Certainly for Rene K, the AfD’s appeal is its novelty. The party’s politicians are, he says, a new breed. “They really went up to people and asked what they were upset about, and what they could do to help,” he says. “They said out loud what people were really thinking. They are a breath of fresh air.”
That set them apart from the vast majority of Bitterfeld’s councillors, who he describes as old and out of touch. He has been particularly impressed by one AfD politician — Volker Olenicak, a local businessman who represents Bitterfeld in Saxony-Anhalt’s state parliament.
The bearded Mr Olenicak says he is part of a popular uprising, with echoes of the 1989 East German revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall. “People want their voices to be heard,” he says. “No one wanted the euro, TTIP [the free-trade pact being negotiated between the EU and the US], all these refugees, but they’re just not being listened to.”
Mr Olenicak is no ordinary pro-democracy activist. He is on the right of the AfD, and is sympathetic to Pegida , the anti-Islam movement whose rallies attract large numbers of neo-Nazis. He denies having “radical rightwing” views. “We don’t condone violence and we have nothing to do with extremists,” he says.
Bitterfeld has established itself as an AfD stronghold. But it used to have a different claim to fame — as Germany’s dirtiest town. Communist-era chemical factories and a huge lignite mine long polluted its skies. Since reunification, it has been transformed. The coal mine was shut and flooded to create a huge new lake complete with promenades and beaches. Factories were closed, but new companies flocked to the town’s industrial park: there are currently 360 there, employing 11,000 people.
But the economic progress is not as great as it is portrayed, say some locals. Unemployment stands at 9.5 per cent, significantly higher than the national average of 6.1 per cent. Many young people have moved away and for those left behind, the outlook is poor. Rene K has worked as a janitor, bricklayer and forklift truck driver, but is currently not in full-time work. He has been looking for a job for the past six months, but admits his prospects are “not great”.
His parents’ generation also has it tough. “A lot of people here still live in the same flat they did 20 years ago, and are on the same income,” says Dagmar Zoschke of the leftwing Die Linke party, who is a member of the regional parliament. “They are unhappy with the established parties, and think the AfD will do things differently.”
‘The town is broke’
Mr Olenicak and his colleagues in the AfD have capitalised on the perceived democratic deficit in local politics. There is, for example, lingering resentment over a decision in 2007 to merge Bitterfeld with its neighbour Wolfen, despite widespread grass roots opposition. The AfD has also made hay with Bitterfeld’s controversial 2013 sale of land around the newly formed lake to a company founded by the late Adolf Merckle, a businessman who was one of Germany’s richest men, for just €2.9m.
“The town is broke, but it flogged off a piece of prime real estate on its doorstep to a bunch of billionaires who are now coining it,” says Mr Olenicak.
But it is clear that the AfD’s fortunes received the biggest boost of all from the refugee crisis. Bitterfeld itself has barely been affected: it has taken in 800 migrants, who represent just 5 per cent of the town’s 16,000 population. The newcomers have been distributed in empty flats across the town. “You barely see them,” says Ms Zoschke. “But people are frightened of the unknown, and the AfD has exploited that fear.”
Rene K is angry at the influx. The toys in his seven-year-old stepdaughter’s school, he says, are all broken and there’s no money to renovate buildings, but plenty to support asylum-seekers.
He says his fury is widely shared. “People I know are permanently unhappy with the refugee policy and generally with everything that’s happening in this country right now,” he says. “I’d say it’s all going the AfD’s way.”
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