'People don't want to speak frankly': How the shy far-right could spark a German election upset

Lurch towards anti-immigrant stance could make AfD the main opposition to government

Chloe Farand
Wednesday 20 September 2017 14:35
Supporters of the 'Pegida' movement and German right-wing populist party Alternative für Germany (AfD) hold banners at a rally in Dresden
Supporters of the 'Pegida' movement and German right-wing populist party Alternative für Germany (AfD) hold banners at a rally in Dresden

“We don’t want any more refugees coming here, there are too many. They live in new apartments while German children are going hungry and their parents cannot afford the rent. This must stop.”

Speaking to The Independent on her return to a high-rise flat in a largely working-class eastern district of Berlin, this woman, who declined to give her name, said she had lost faith in German politics – but would consider voting for the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Sunday’s election.

It is because of a spike in support in neighourhoods like Buch that the AfD is expected to win seats in the German parliament for the first time, becoming the third biggest political force in the country.

According to AfD representative Christian Buchholz, who won in the wider Berlin electoral district of Pankow 1 in last year’s local election with 22.4 per cent of the votes, in some parts of Buch support for the far-right party is nearing 35 per cent.

Founded as a Eurosceptic party in 2013 by a group of economists, the AfD has capitalised on the anti-immigrant backlash to Angela Merkel’s 2015 open-door policy, which saw more than a million refugees and migrants come to Germany.

A pop-up refugee centre in Buch, Berlin. Local AfD officials say ‘too much money’ has been spent on such facilities

About 17km out from Berlin’s central Alexanderplatz and with few public transport connections, Pankow 1 has seen the construction of four temporary accommodation centres for refugees in the past two years.

There are three such centres in Buch alone, each with a capacity to host about 450 people, and two are within a few hundred metres of each other.

Heini Schulz, who lives in a tower block opposite one of the temporary structures for refugees, is a former voter for Ms Merkel’s conservative CDU party but is now considering voting for the AfD.

“There are too many of these refugee camps here. I also don’t agree with the government legalising gay marriage,” said the 65-year-old retired locksmith.

A former CDU voter living opposite the refugee centre in Buch said they would be considering voting AfD this time around

Anna Buhl, also a resident of one of the tower blocks, agrees the area has received too many refugees: “There is a lot of noise here, children living in the camp are heard playing and screaming until 11pm – my children would have been in bed by then. It’s not true to say that a majority of people are happy with this policy,” she said.

Mr Buchholz, who campaigned in the area for the AfD, was quick to tell Ms Buhl that documents from the German Senate, also seen by The Independent, state the refugee shelter cost taxpayers nearly €19m (£16.8m).

“Too much money has been spent on these camps,” he said. ”To have an apartment in Berlin, people work and pay for it and can’t even afford living in such nice a place. This money should be spent to benefit the people earning it.”

The AfD’s lurch to the right and adoption of an anti-immigrant stance have shifted the party’s support base from one of disgruntled economists to voters who feel they have been left behind by traditional parties.

In nearby Karow, another container-built accommodation centre lies alongside a children’s playground in between rows of residential homes.

Christian Buchholz on the campaign trail in Pankow 1, where four refugee centres have been built in the past two years

One man walking his dog along the centre’s fence said: “I don’t like what is happening here, but I don’t want to speak frankly about it.”

“People in this area don’t really want to talk about the problems here,” said Mr Buchholz. “Many here are afraid.”

For Timm Westmark, of North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional left-wing stronghold in the north-west of the country, immigration is also the fundamental reason why he supports the AfD. The 23-year-old law student also teaches German in refugee centres.

“I have seen the problems with my own eyes. People who vote for the [centre-left] SPD and have never seen what actually happens here say it’s all OK, they are all nice people. But in the centres, I have seen people smoking weed and doing anything, they don’t go to school, they don’t work and there is constant petty crime,” he said.

Mr Westmark added he had nothing against “real refugees” but strongly opposed the mass influx of migrants who were hoping for a better life in Germany.

He told The Independent he often had to avoid speaking about his political beliefs, for fear of being singled out in an overwhelmingly left-wing area.

Mr Buchholz said this narrative was common with many silent AfD supporters fearing repercussion from their neighbours or their employers.

“People are afraid to say they are from the AfD. The situation is very agitated. Our campaign posters are being destroyed and supporters are being attacked by members of the Antifa,” said Mr Buchholz, showing the fresh graffiti at the entrance of his apartment in the wealthy Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, a Green party stronghold. At home, Mr Buchholz says he has had to keep his AfD activities quiet out of concern for his two teenage sons.

It’s an area where Mr Buchholz would struggle to win over support anyway – not least as he is a firm denier of humanity’s role in climate change. “We have gained voters from all parties expect the Greens,” he said, adding “they are like New Zealand for us, like the other end of the world”.

But while some AfD voters may remain quiet before Sunday’s election when Germans voters will head to the polls, a feeling of excitement has spread through the party.

Expected to win up to 12 per cent of the votes according to polls, there is little doubt the AfD’s presence in parliament will shake up the consensus politics of the past four years. With Angela Merkel poised to win a fourth term in office and the centre-left again a possible coalition partner, the AfD could become the government’s main opposition party.

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