'Judge Merciless' delights the right

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In a beer hall a few miles from the seething fleshpots of the Reeperbahn, "Judge Merciless" is telling an audience of 300 middle-aged people how he intends to clean up Germany's "capital of crime".

His listeners already have a pretty good idea: Judge Ronald Schill wants sex offenders castrated, unwanted asylum-seekers dumped in Africa, and 10,000 extra police officers recruited.

While the message is nothing new, the messenger is. Mr Schill, his followers hope, may just be that elusive "charismatic leader" that the German far right has been seeking for years; someone who can plant extreme ideas firmly in the centre of the political agenda.

Tonight will tell. Opinion polls before today's elections to the regional parliament predict that the "Schill Party", formed only a year ago, might get as much as 15 per cent.

If the mainstream conservatives of the Christian Democratic Union do well enough, "Judge Merciless" will become the interior minister of the new regional government.

With the exception of a few short-lived triumphs in the East, no far-right politician has done so well in half a century. Mr Schill's rise in Germany's richest, most cosmopolitan and supposedly most sophisticated city has sent shudders through the entire country.

"Judge Merciless" is a nickname coined by the press, and Mr Schill revels in it. He might well have invented it himself. He did, after all, invite local journalists to witness the day he jailed a mentally unstable woman for two-and-a-half years merely for scratching 10 cars. He is at present on leave from the court, fighting a conviction for obstructing justice: he had thrown a few leftist hecklers into jail, and sat on the papers that would have led to their instant release.

Politics, though, is his true calling. In the beer hall he cuts a tall, robust figure, shoulders slightly hunched, blessed with a silver tongue. He does not thump tables or raise his voice. The 43-year-old Mr Schill has come armed with a mountain of crime statistics and a sackful of ethnic jokes.

Crime and ethnicity are of course synonymous. In his speech, drug-dealers always come with the "black African" epithet.

"It has long been taboo to talk about this subject," he says, and then rattles off a few nuggets of "facts", such as "the prisons are full of foreigners". Fifteen hundred shots fired are in Hamburg every year, he reveals, "and it's always the same ethnic groups".

Mr Schill's organisation is called the "Party of Law and Order Offensive" . On the ballot paper it is merely listed as "Schill", revealing the true nature of this one-man band.

The city is patently not, as he claims, akin to "Chicago in the 1920s", but it does have a crime problem. According to him, Hamburg has "the biggest drugs scene in Europe", and you are 10 times more likely to be mugged there than in Stuttgart or Munich. And all because of the permissive Social Democrats who have governed Hamburg for 44 years.

Even the terrorist attacks in the US have provided grist for the judge's mill. It is no accident, he asserts, that "the blood trail of terrorism leads to Hamburg". At the latest count, five of the perpetrators of the attacks had lived in the city.

In many respects, the city's government is the envy of the German left. Unemployment has fallen by a third in the past four years and economic growth is among the highest in the country.

Yet there is an unmistakable sense of fear, if not necessarily loathing, on the streets. Older people are afraid to travel at night, deterred by the drug dealers who openly sell their wares at the railway stations.

Belatedly, the complacent Social Democrats are recognising that crime is a far more serious issue than they thought.

"To some extent we have failed," admits Bulent Ciftlik, a Social Democrat election official. "We should have reacted much earlier to criticism of the law-and-order situation." Now it is too late – the genie is out of the bottle.

At the end of Mr Schill's beer hall performance, the audience is invited to ask questions. There are few of those, but much effusive praise.

Henning Landsiedel, a blond 19-year-old student, sticks out from this crowd. He raises his hand, but does not get the microphone.

"This is the second time I am at a Schill rally," he says later. "I want to ask him how he is going to halve crime in 100 days as promised, without creating a police state. But I never get a chance."

In the "Party of Law and Order Offensive", there is no room for doubt, let alone dissent.