Dashed hopes boost far-right in eastern Germany 30 years after fall of Berlin Wall

A giant Karl Marx statue towers in the east German city of Chemnitz but, 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, another political wind is blowing here as the ex-communist city battles the image of a far-right hotbed.

Dashed hopes boost far-right in eastern Germany 30 years after fall of Berlin Wall
Supporters of the right-wing extremist movement Pro Chemnitz walk through the city on Sunday. Photo: DPA

Polls suggest that Sunday the region's voters will deliver strong gains for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), an ideological ally of nationalist parties now ruling ex-Soviet bloc countries Poland and Hungary.

That would rattle Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government and force the other parties to team up to form majorities.

The AfD speaks to voters like Olaf Quinger, a 62-year-old butcher who voiced his fear and anger about the arrival of more than one million migrants in recent years.

“The main problem is that people who are launching a kind of invasion of our country are being treated the same way as Germans,” he said, standing at an AfD campaign booth. “That's a huge injustice.”

Many asylum-seekers have flashy smartphones, he said, and “very few of them are really refugees … they are here to leech off the state”.

READ ALSO: Chemnitz: Portrait of a city shaken by anti-foreigner riots

AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, 78 – who has labelled the Nazi era “a speck of bird shit on German history” – last Saturday spoke in Chemnitz, Saxony state.

Outlining party policies, he demanded secure borders and immigration caps, railed against Brussels and mocked teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

He then complained that Saxony, whose people he said had bravely won their freedom, was now often characterized as “a right-wing extremist stronghold, a brown stain, a state trapped in the past, the embodiment of a dark Germany”.

“If you believe our politicians and media,” he told supporters, then Saxony – alongside with Poland and Hungary, which helped end the Soviet empire – are now “the hearts of darkness”.

“The truth is that Poland and Hungary – and Saxony – are the beating hearts of freedom and resistance, then and now.”

Strong in the east

The rise of the AfD has confronted Germany anew with the legacy of the peaceful revolution of 1989, which brought political freedom but also economic pain.

Many “Ossis”, slang for east Germans, complain of a continued wealth gap and of western arrogance.

So-called “Wessis” meanwhile, often look down on the late-comers to liberal democracy and social diversity in the east where racist violence has flared repeatedly since the early 1990s.

Chemnitz earned infamy a year ago when thousands of neo-Nazis, football hooligans and enraged citizens rallied near the 40-tonne Marx bust to vent their anger at immigrants.

The spark that set off the days of unrest was the late-night fatal stabbing of a German man by a Syrian asylum seeker, who last week received a nine-and-a-half year jail term. An Iraqi suspect remains at large.

Flowers at a tribute to Daniel Hillig, who was stabbed to death in Chemnitz on August 26th 2018. Photo: DPA

In the heated protests, AfD leaders marched with the radical Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements. They were united in their anti-immigration stance and distrust of cosmopolitan elites and “establishment” institutions, parties and media, whom they regard as “traitors to the people”.

“We are the people,” is an old pro-democracy rallying cry that the AfD now levels against the “Merkel regime”.

Gauland praised Saxons for what he described as their instinctive, patriotic resistance to dictatorship and for being “a stake in the flesh of the multicultural, multi-ethnic, mentally controlled old Germany”.

Flags, Hitler salute

The 1989 revolution swept away East Germany's one-party state with its hated secret police. Reunification a year later brought a burst of infrastructure investment and led then-chancellor Helmut Kohl to promise “flowering landscapes” of prosperity.

But it also sparked the mass closure of ramshackle factories and state farms, massive job losses and a population flight.

Those who stayed behind often felt left behind, and their anger and envy can easily turn against newcomers.

“There is so much poverty among the pensioners,” said Heide Haenig, 70, a retired chemical technician.

She gestured to a nearby park where immigrants sat and claimed: “They act like they own Germany. They don't even have to pay rent. They get 200 euros per child… and then they have seven children!”

READ ALSO: Could the far-right AfD really win in upcoming east German elections?

Not everyone shares those views. Chemnitz mayor Barbara Ludwig, 57, Saturday took part in a civic discussion forum where people wrote goals like “tolerance” and “respect” on cardboard thought-bubbles.

Ludwig has voiced dismay that many now associate Chemnitz with “the Karl Marx head, German flags and a Hitler salute” – but insisted to AFP that “the city has a lot to offer, it is quite different from the image created a year ago”.

People elsewhere in Saxony are also pushing back. On the day Gauland spoke to 400 people in Chemnitz, over 40,000 rallied in the state capital Dresden against racism and for cultural diversity.

It was the largest rally there since the Wall fell.

READ ALSO: Thousands march against hate in Dresden ahead of key state polls

By Frank Zeller

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Norway flirts with the idea of a ‘mini Brexit’ in election campaign

On paper, Norway's election on Monday looks like it could cool Oslo's relationship with the European Union but analysts say that appearances may be deceiving.

Norway flirts with the idea of a 'mini Brexit' in election campaign
The Centre Party's leader Slagsvold Vedum has called for Norway's relationship with the European Union to be renegotiated. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB / AFP

After eight years of a pro-European centre-right government, polls suggest the Scandinavian country is headed for a change of administration.

A left-green coalition in some shape or form is expected to emerge victorious, with the main opposition Labour Party relying on the backing of several eurosceptic parties to obtain a majority in parliament.

In its remote corner of Europe, Norway is not a member of the EU but it is closely linked to the bloc through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.

The deal gives Norway access to the common market in exchange for the adoption of most European directives.

Both the Centre Party and the Socialist Left — the Labour Party’s closest allies, which together have around 20 percent of voter support — have called for the marriage of convenience to be dissolved.

“The problem with the agreement we have today is that we gradually transfer more and more power from the Storting (Norway’s parliament), from Norwegian lawmakers to the bureaucrats in Brussels who are not accountable,” Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said in a recent televised debate.


Defending the interests of its rural base, the Centre Party wants to replace the EEA with trade and cooperation agreements.

However, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store, who is expected to become the next prime minister, does not want to jeopardise the country’s ties to the EU, by far Norway’s biggest trading partner.

“If I go to my wife and say ‘Look, we’ve been married for years and things are pretty good, but now I want to look around to see if there are any other options out there’… Nobody (in Brussels) is going to pick up the phone” and be willing to renegotiate the terms, Gahr Store said in the same debate.

Running with the same metaphor, Slagsvold Vedum snapped back: “If your wife were riding roughshod over you every day, maybe you would react.”

EU a ‘tough negotiating partner’

Initially, Brexit gave Norwegian eurosceptics a whiff of hope. But the difficulties in untangling British-EU ties put a damper on things.

“In Norway, we saw that the EU is a very tough negotiating partner and even a big country like Britain did not manage to win very much in its negotiations,” said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

While Norwegians have rejected EU membership twice, in referendums in 1972 and 1994, a majority are in favour of the current EEA agreement.

During the election campaign, the EU issue has gradually been pushed to the back burner as the Centre Party — which briefly led in the polls — has seen its support deflate.

The nature of Norway’s relationship to the bloc will depend on the distribution of seats in parliament, but experts generally agree that little is likely to change.

“The Labour Party will surely be firm about the need to maintain the EEA agreement,” said Johannes Bergh, political scientist at the Institute for Social Research, “even if that means making concessions to the other parties in other areas”.

Closer cooperation over climate?

It’s possible that common issues, like the fight against climate change, could in fact bring Norway and the EU even closer.

“Cooperation with the EU will very likely become stronger because of the climate issue” which “could become a source of friction” within the next coalition, Sverdrup suggested.

“Even though the past 25 years have been a period of increasingly close cooperation, and though we can therefore expect that it will probably continue, there are still question marks” surrounding Norway’s future ties to the EU, he said.

These likely include the inclusion and strength of eurosceptics within the future government as well as the ability of coalition partners to agree on all EU-related issues.

Meanwhile, Brussels is looking on cautiously. The EEA agreement is “fundamental” for relations between the EU and its
partners Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, according to EU spokesman Peter Stano.

But when it comes to the rest, “we do not speculate on possible election outcomes nor do we comment on different party positions.”