STUTTGART, GERMANY - MARCH 13:  Supporters of the Alternative fuer Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), react to initial results  in Baden-Wuerttemberg state elections at the AfD Election Party at Alte Reithalle Hotel Maritim on March 13, 2016 in Stuttgart, Germany. State elections taking place today in three German states: Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Wuerttemberg, are a crucial test-case for German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel, who has come under increasing pressure over her liberal immigration policy towards migrants and refugees. The populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), with campaign rhetoric aimed at Germans who are uneasy with so many newcomers, has solid polling numbers and will almost certainly win seats in all three state parliaments.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
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The conflicting passions aroused by the rightwing Alternative for Germany party run right through Wolfgang Ott’s surgery.

When the 62-year-old gynaecologist recently made public his support for the AfD by running as an election candidate, one patient phoned to say she was quitting his practice in protest; others offered their encouragement.

“Of course it’s difficult,” says Dr Ott, who works in the university town of Freiburg in south western Germany. “I received an angry phone call from a young woman who said she was . . . completely against my politics. But from some other people I have had calls of support.”

The rise of populist, rightwing political parties has set the establishment on edge across Europe. But the case of the AfD, which notched another success in regional elections this week, is particularly fraught because of Germany’s Nazi past.

It has made rightwing politics taboo in the postwar era, and still gives many voters pause before they would publicly admit to backing a party to the right of chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc.

“German history remains a factor,” says Cornelia Koppetsch, sociology professor at Darmstadt Technical University. “People want to keep themselves free from stigma so they are less likely to vote for the rightwing than in other European countries.”

Support for the populist right is weaker in Germany than in some other European countries, notably France. Still, the right is gaining momentum as hostility to Ms Merkel’s refugees-welcome approach is driving some voters to set aside their reservations.

The AfD this week pushed the CDU into third place in rural Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Ms Merkel’s home turf, and its confidence is swelling ahead of the next regional election on September 18 in Berlin and national elections in autumn 2017.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 07: Neo-Nazis and other right-wing activists gather in front of Hauptbahnhof railway station under the banner "We for Berlin - We for Germany" to protest against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy on May 7, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Germany's far-right is seeking to profit from the unease among a significant portion of Germany's population over the influx of over one million migrants and refugees in the past year. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
Neo-Nazis protest against Angela Merkel's refugee policy in May. The AfD has carefully tried to distance itself from rightwing extremism and positioned itself as 'bürgerlich' — or socially respectable © Getty

The AfD is not the first post-second world war German rightwing party, nor the first to try to profit from anti-immigration sentiment. The neo-Nazi NPD attempted it in the 1960s, when foreign workers flocked to Germany, and the Republicans followed suit in the 1990s in the migration wave at the end of the cold war.

But, unlike the NPD and the Republicans, the AfD has carefully tried to distance itself from rightwing extremism and positioned itself as bürgerlich — or socially respectable.

That does not prevent critics branding it as extremist, or even as Nazi. Chief among them is 56-year-old Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, who said this summer: “Everything that these people say, I have already heard . . . from my own father, who was a Nazi to his last breath.”

But the German authorities, which closely monitor rightwing extremists, have not put the AfD under an official watch, unlike the NPD and the Republicans. Ms Merkel made clear in the Bundestag this week that the AfD is a political threat to be countered by reasoned argument — not by demonisation.

Academics tend to be divided about labelling the party extremist. Formed only in 2013, it draws a broad range of protest voters concerned not only about immigration, but also globalisation, the EU and rapid social change.

Oskar Niedermayer, politics professor at Berlin’s Free University, says: “The AfD is not an extreme rightwing party. It is a national conservative party with some extreme right supporters.”
Rising force

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 05:  Frauke Petry (C), co-head of the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) political party, greets lead AfD candidate in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Leif-Erik Holm (C-L) as AfD co-head Joerg Meuthen (L) and Berlin AfD candidate Georg Pazderski look on at a press conference under a banner that reads:
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● 20.8% The AfD’s share of the vote in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern regional election at the weekend, contested by candidate Leif-Erik Holm, pictured being congratulated by Frauke Petry, party leader
● 12%
The AfD’s support nationwide

Ms Koppetsch disagrees. “They are saying things which are not acceptable and trying to make them acceptable,” she says. “There is a clear echo of Nazi times — they are saying things about Islam which were said about Judaism.”

AfD leaders themselves have sometimes provoked such criticism with radical campaign statements. Party chief Frauke Petry made headlines earlier this year when she suggested border guards could, in the last resort, shoot at migrants to maintain order. While she insisted she was only stating the law, her remarks were widely condemned.

Such declarations have helped the party gather votes from the extreme right, notably the NPD. But with about 12 per cent in national opinion polls, the AfD is now reaching far beyond the radical fringe. “It wants to distance itself from the extreme right so it can win backing from the respectable centre,” says Mr Niedermayer.

While it wins a bigger share of the vote among the jobless and poorly-educated, it is increasingly drawing conservative, educated middle-class Germans to its anti-immigration, anti-Islam cause.

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the AfD’s 18 newly-elected regional assembly members include Holger Arppe, a former gallery manager who is appealing against a guilty verdict of incitement for a 2010 online comment. But Mr Arppe’s 17 party colleagues include a judge, two lawyers and a policeman.

Whether or not the AfD is socially acceptable depends on individuals. Dr Ott says that among his medical colleagues there was only one who complained about his politics when he announced his AfD candidacy. “He sent me an angry email — but then he is SPD.”

Karl-Rudolf Korte, politics professor at Duisburg-Essen University, says that in “conservative circles” it has become acceptable to admit to voting AfD but not among liberals and social democrats.

Ms Koppetsch believes that many AfD supporters still remain wary of speaking out for fear of the consequences in wider circles, beyond immediate family and friends. “Many people have voted for the AfD but they don’t say so publicly because it could hurt them at work,” she says.

Dr Ott’s experience suggests that some Germans are now ready to take the risk.

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