Flagging German far right fails the electoral test

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The Independent Online
IN THE German elections last weekend there was one dog that did not bark. In the four years since German unity, there have been ritual predictions that Germany could slip back towards the grisly past. Every far-right act of violence and every sign of far-right electoral support was taken as proof that the apocalypse was round the corner. The elections on Sunday showed it was not.

The elections were confusing in most respects - five main parties and every one a self-declared winner. One minority party could not pretend to find some good news. The far-right Republicans gained less than 2 per cent of the vote - less than half the amount needed to gain seats in parliament.

Only two years ago, the Republicans were riding high. In elections in the south-western state of Baden-Wurttemberg, the Republicans gained 11 per cent of the vote, forcing the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to form a grand coalition to keep them out. In local elections in the west German state of Hesse last year, they gained more than 8 per cent. This Sunday, the Republican vote in those two states was 3 and 2 per cent respectively.

There are several reasons for the decline of the Republicans, who are treated as pariahs by the political and media establishment. An obvious source of xenophobic resentment has partly dried up. The flood of asylum-seekers into Germany after 1990, at the same time as the start of Germany's economic problems, led to enormous tensions. Germany's uniquely liberal asylum laws allowed all comers to settle at the taxpayers' expense while their cases were considered. For 40 years, while the Iron Curtain was in place, this was a luxury that West Germany could afford. With the end of the Cold War and the opening of borders, the trickle of refugees became a deluge and passions soared.

Last year, after much agonising, the opposition Social Democrats agreed to a change in the constitution to close the floodgates. Germany's liberal image was sullied, since its immigration laws were now almost as strict as those of the UK. The writer Gunter Grass left the Social Democrats in disgust. But the Republicans no longer had obvious grievances to play on.

In addition, there was shock over the worst acts of racist violence Germany had seen since 1945. When three Turks were burnt to death in November 1992, hundreds of thousands took part in candle-lit marches. When five Turks were burnt to death in May 1993, the shockwave was greater still.

The Republicans could claim until they were blue in the face that they had nothing to do with neo-Nazi, murderous skinheads, but many saw them as 'spiritual arsonists'. Even petty bigots, it seemed, stopped short of wanting murder. Support for the Republicans slumped sharply. A third reason for their loss of support was that the party's populism was exposed as a sham. The moment that Republicans got seats on local councils and regional parliaments, they began creaming off the maximum number of allowances, while taking little interest in day-to-day politics. They seemed to represent the kind of sleaze they had complained about.

As support for the Republicans declined, knives came out for the party leader, Franz Schonhuber, a former member of Hitler's Waffen-SS. Mr Schonhuber, in an attempt to restore the fortunes of the far right, held talks in August with Gerhard Frey, leader of the DVU (German People's Union), an admirer of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The declaration of friendship was an admission of weakness. Many would-be respectable Republicans were unhappy.

Earlier this month, Mr Schonhuber was dumped by his colleagues, unhappy at the bad publicity that Mr Schohuber's chats with Mr Frey had brought. A Berlin court ruled last week that the palace coup was illegitimate and that only a party conference could get rid of Mr Schonhuber. Either way, the Republicans' star is waning - in contrast to the success of nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe.