German nationalists pitch broad program ahead of election

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2017 1:03 PM
German nationalists pitch broad program ahead of election

BERLIN (AP) — Last summer the nationalist Alternative for Germany party was surging in the polls, on course to become the third-strongest political force in the country at the next general election.

But with six months to go before Germans head to the ballot box, the party's luster has faded.

Leadership infighting, a secretive trip to Moscow and a new challenger from the left have sapped its support.

Add to that a growing wariness among voters about Trump-style politics since the new U.S. president's inauguration in January, and AfD — as it is known in Germany — is feeling the pinch.

A regular poll of German voters, conducted at least once a month since 2000, puts AfD's support at 11 percent — down from 16 percent last summer, and other polls have put support as low as 8 percent. The Deutschlandtrend survey for public broadcaster ARD has a margin of error of up to 3.1 percent.

The figures are sobering for a party that entered three more state parliaments last year with results that rattled Germany's political establishment.

"AfD is in a somewhat dramatic phase," said Werner J. Patzelt, a professor of political science at the University of Dresden. "It expanded very quickly. They couldn't vet everybody in such a short period of time and there are many different movements under one umbrella."

Infighting has become most apparent on sensitive issues surrounding ideas of German identity and the country's relationship with its Nazi past.

Most recently the party's leadership has been split over how to deal with Bjoern Hoecke, the party's leader in Thuringia state, who suggested that Germany should reverse its tradition of acknowledging and atoning for the Nazis' crimes. The dispute reportedly cost the party a six-figure sum after major donors withheld funds.

Meanwhile, the huge influx of migrants Germany experienced in 2015 and 2016 — arguably the biggest single issue to boost AfD's vote — has largely dropped off the radar as the numbers of new arrivals have declined.

Voters weary of Angela Merkel after 12 years in office, who may have been leaning toward AfD, now have a fresh option in Martin Schulz, who became the Social Democrats' surprise candidate for chancellorship in January, giving the center-left party's poll numbers a fillip it hadn't seen for a decade.

Mainstream conservatives drifting toward AfD will have been startled by party co-leader Frauke Petry's admission that she'd attended a meeting in Moscow with members of Vladimir Putin's party as well as the hard-right Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Manfred Guellner, head of polling firm Forsa, said the outcome of the American election has also thrown a wild card into German politics.

Petry has gushed about Trump's victory, saying it offered "a historic opportunity to address erroneous global economic and social developments of the past decades." Anti-Trump protesters in Germany have carried signs with slogans like "Germany: Don't make the same mistake in 2017, AfD=Trump," and that idea seems to be gaining some traction.

"Trump's election in the U.S. has unsettled many Germans and they're afraid that with the many conflicts in the world this could result in big problems," Guellner said. "So they're rallying around a reliable government rather than a party like AfD who can't be relied upon to handle Trump."

Patzelt said it was too soon to say whether AfD's collapse in the opinion polls will hold true for the general election, because the party has generally performed better than its poll standings. Elections in three German states this spring will provide a concrete test of how AfD is faring ahead of the national vote on Sept. 24, he said.

It needs more than 5 percent of the vote to win seats in Parliament.

Party leaders presented a draft election program Thursday that included traditional vote winners such as cutting taxes, giving more money to families, improving health services and reducing noise pollution. But familiar AfD demands to ditch the euro currency and sharply curtail immigration remain central to the program, which needs to be approved at a party convention in Cologne next month.

Party activists like Herbert Mohr remain enthusiastic. The 28-year-old physiotherapist was surprised to find himself elected to Berlin's state assembly last year after the party took 14.2 percent of the vote in the traditionally left-leaning German capital.

"We had to start from scratch," he said at a recent party event near Berlin. "It's exciting but a lot of work."

While concerned about immigration, Mohr wants the party to find strong positions on health care and other issues too.

"I hope that the people at the top find a way to cooperate constructively with each other," he said. "People need to be a little bit forgiving because we're not totally streamlined yet, we still have some rough edges."