Neo-Nazis are set to win parliamentary seats for a second time in Germany's economically depressed east tomorrow in state elections that are likely to embarrass Chancellor Angela Merkel and her grand coalition government.
The constituency of Germany's first female leader is in the rural east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but this week in the villages on the state's coast, hundreds of black, red and white election placards with slogans such as "Asylum cheats - Out !", "Work not immigration!" and images of clenched fists with the word "Enough!" were plastered across walls and hanging from lamp posts.
The posters, which were more prominent than the placards of Germany's established parties, were evidence of the massive effort that the country's neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) has put into the election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Despite the German government's attempts to ban the party two years ago, the NPD is on course to win seven per cent of the vote in the eastern state this Sunday and gain seats in the regional parliament , which is currently controlled by Social Democrats and the reformed Communist Party for Democratic Socialism.
The result is likely to bolster the NPD's standing in the east. Two years ago the party won seats in the state election in Saxony for the first time in 36 years.
The man behind NPD's campaign is Udo Pastörs, a jeweller who moved to Mecklenburg in the late 1990s after falling in love with what he described as an "unspoilt and truly German part of the Fatherland".
Surrounded by NPD supporters, Mr Pastörs, 52, stood in the town of Boizenburg last week handing out sweets in NPD wrappers to the children of passers by and pressing free alarm clocks on adults, which were meant as gift from the party.
Mr Pastörs symbolises the new "respectable" face of the NPD, which has been trying to shed its "boot boy" image in recent years.
He was enthusiastic about his party's links with the British National Party. "But I am always disgusted by the rubbish that I see in the streets of immigrant quarters in Britain," he said. "We want to make sure that we don't have a multi-cultural society like that in Germany."
Mr Pastörs, who describes Adolf Hitler as a "phenomenon", said that more than 200 NPD party activists had descended on the state to help in the campaign. "We have been going into housing estates and on to farms to meet the people - they are fed up with the established parties because they realise there is no difference between them," he insisted.
The state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has the highest unemployment rate in Germany. The problem has been exacerbated by an exodus of people to the west since the country's unification in 1990. "Many people feel they are superfluous," Hajo Funke, a Berlin professor and analyst of right-wing parties, said.
NPD campaigners such as Mr Pastörs hope that the party's polices, which advocate the reintroduction of the death sentence, a ban on immigration, the expulsion of asylum-seekers and Islamic extremists and job opportunities for members of the German race, will be enough to mobilise a powerful protest vote against the established parties.
But there was growing evidence that the NPD and its supporters were using the kind of intimidation tactics used by Hitler's National Socialists to snatch political power during the 1930s.
In Berlin, where city state elections are also being held this weekend, a 23-year-old Social Democrat supporter was attacked by right-wing extremists as he tried to put up party campaign posters.
Left-wing politicians campaigning in the city have complained of right-wing thugs invading their meetings, shouting: "The Jews deserved the Holocaust." In one case a candidate had fireworks shot at her. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Margaret Seemann, a Social Democrat politician, had her campaign stall surrounded by NPD supporters.
"The NPD had changed its strategy. It hid itself like a wolf in sheep's clothing," Harald Ringstorff, the state's Social Democrat Prime Minister, said. "But it has being showing its true face in this campaign by resorting to pressure tactics and violence."Reuse content