Germany's eurosceptics gain support but 'populist' tag stings

Reuters News
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Posted: May 15, 2014 11:22 AM

By Alexandra Hudson

BRANDENBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Since the agony of just missing out on parliament seats in the German election last year, the leader of Germany's eurosceptic party has been branded a "salon fascist", seen 40 percent of his posters destroyed, and encountered protests wherever he goes.

But Bernd Lucke, a 51-year-old economics professor, finally has the consolation of seeing his Alternative for Germany (AfD) climb to its highest ever poll rating of 7 percent - 10 days before Germans vote for the European Parliament, and enough to win a handful of seats.

Eurosceptic parties like Britain's UKIP are expected to poll well in the elections, mining popular frustration over taxpayer-funded bailouts of indebted euro states and the European Union's perceived meddling and attacks on national interests

Some projections suggest around a quarter of the 751 seats in the European Parliament could go to non-mainstream parties.

But it is a different story in Germany. The AfD - barely a year old - is hampered by suspicions that it attracts far-right voters, a sign of how deeply pro-EU feelings and fear of nationalism lie in the German psyche since the horrors of the Nazi past.

Lucke, a father of five, insists his party is not populist nor anti-foreigner and will not tolerate such sentiments among its members or candidates. Political opponents have deliberately made such charges to destroy German voters' trust, he adds.

"If the media consistently says we are a right-wing party then we become attractive to the far-right and they join. We can't identify them all immediately, though we then try and root them out," the party's second lead candidate for the election, Hans-Olaf Henkel, told foreign journalists.

"In other countries you can discuss euro politics and alternatives much more openly. That is unfortunately not the case here, and we suffer from that ... I have had to face slurs, threats and a level of enmity which I've never ever encountered before," said Henkel, the 74-year-old former president of the influential Federation of German Industries.

The AfD polled 4.7 percent of the national vote last September, falling just short of the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament).

It caused a buzz of excitement last year, bursting onto a political scene where euroscepticism was limited to a clutch of rebels within Angela Merkel's conservative-led government and mocking headlines about Greece.

Initially, the AfD struck a chord with people frustrated at Merkel's line that there was no alternative to bailing out struggling euro states. Since then it has struggled to keep up the momentum, with the euro crisis out of the headlines and the party scrambling to root out far-right sympathisers.

"It is really critical for them to put in a good showing in this European election. They have the reputation as a one-issue eurosceptic party, and if they can't manage to do well when the poll is all about Europe, then they never will," said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner of the Emnid polling institute.

He sees about 3 percent of the German electorate as having a deeply-rooted antagonism towards the EU and another 2-3 percent as determined to cast protest votes.

The AfD has ruled out working with UKIP, France's National Front or the anti-Islam PVV party in the Netherlands, but the European Parliament would be a platform for it to chip away at support for mainstream parties like Merkel's conservatives.

LUCKE'S LECTURE

Lucke campaigned on Wednesday evening in Brandenburg an der Havel, a quiet town of 71,000 an hour from Berlin. Unemployment here is 12.9 percent - about twice the national average, as in much of the former Communist east of Germany.

Striking an affable tone, he appeared very much the college lecturer with an hour-long auditorium address to a crowd of several hundred dominated by pensioners and men. Beefy security men scowled at the doors and police stood guard outside.

Warming the audience up with gags about EU regulations on light bulbs, toilets and condoms, Lucke moving onto national sovereignty, economics and the euro and democracy.

"Lucke is this well-spoken economics professor, but states don't just function with economics alone. They need politics too, and that is where the AfD is attracting a dangerous element," said local council Social Democrat candidate Sebastian Moeckel, leading a group of several dozen protesters outside.

Brandenburg holds communal elections on the same day as the European election, and will vote again in a state election on Sept 14. The AfD is anxious to make its mark in all.

"I completely agree with the content of what Lucke says, but I wish he said it more forcefully to rally people," said 73-year-old Helmut Astel, adding that he would really prefer a party like UKIP. "Lucke is much too afraid of the media."

One AfD candidate complained from the floor that he had heard another local candidate making comments bordering on racism - prompting Lucke to reiterate that the party "will not tolerate it". He said he would not give up his political campaign despite personal attacks and stress.

"We need to show our country that there are people here with backbone, who stand up for their views," Lucke concluded, to a standing ovation.

(Editing by Stephen Brown and Mark Heinrich)