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Rise of the Eurosceptics casts shadow over German election

New party calling for crisis-hit countries to quit EU close to winning seats in Bundestag

German voters’ concerns about Europe returned to the political agenda with a vengeance today after opinion polls showed for the first time that a new Eurosceptic party was poised to win parliamentary seats in this month’s general election.

A survey published by the respected Forsa group showed that support for the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had risen to a record 4 per cent despite assumptions that it was doomed to political failure. The result put the AfD within one percentage point of the 5 per cent hurdle required to win seats in the Bundestag. Earlier this summer the party, which wants the EU’s crisis-hit countries to leave the eurozone, had been polling between 2 and 3 per cent.

“There is a good chance that there will be more AfD voters coming out of the woodwork,” Peter Matuscheck, Forsa’s chief political analyst, told Spiegel Online. “Many people are too embarrassed to admit that they are planning to vote for the party.”

The AfD’s leader, Bernd Lucke, who is an economics professor from Hamburg, welcomed the findings. “We want to give the established parties a good reason to rethink their policies,” he said. He insists that his party will win more than 5 per cent of the vote, and then more than 10 parliamentary seats in the election. Such an outcome could wreck Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes of winning an outright victory for her government.

The poll’s findings are a worrying development for Ms Merkel and her ruling coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats. She had until recently gone out of her way to avoid the subject of Europe in her campaign to win a third term on 22 September. Early in her campaign, the Chancellor chose to sidestep suggestions that ailing eurozone countries, in particular Greece, would need a new bailout early next year thereby increasing the financial burden on German taxpayers. However last month the issue was suddenly back on the election agenda. First, a leaked Bundesbank document reported that the Greek government was failing to meet its reform  programme targets. The conservative Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble subsequently conceded that Greece would need a new bailout next year. The opposition Social Democrats, who are trailing far behind Ms Merkel in the polls, accused the Chancellor of blatantly lying about Greece.

Bernd Lucke: The AfD leader says the main parties must rethink Europe policy (EPA)

Ms Merkel has since been forced to address the issue of Europe during her campaign rallies where she insists that Germany remains the “motor of Europe”. But more alarmingly for some voters, she argued forcefully that Greece should “never have been allowed” to join the eurozone.

Political analysts have concluded that the sudden re-emergence of Europe as an election issue has contributed strongly to the rise in support for the AfD. Manfred Güllner, Forsa’s director, noted that backing for the party was “coming from a peculiar segment of the population of which the nucleus is the radicalised middle classes”. Forsa’s findings have confirmed that the rise of the AfD is eating into Ms Merkel’s support. Some 28 per cent of AfD sympathisers voted for her party in the 2009 general election. By contrast only 14 per cent of AfD supporters voted Social Democrat last time around.

The AfD wants crisis-hit countries including Greece, Spain, Italy and even France to voluntarily leave the eurozone, leaving Germany and a core of wealthy northern European countries to form a new economic bloc.

If the party enters parliament, its presence could hugely complicate Chancellor Merkel’s plans to continue governing with her liberal Free Democrat coalition partners. She could be forced to seek a new grand coalition government with the opposition Social Democrats with whom she governed from 2005 until 2009.