German Right-Wing Party on Course to Enter Parliament

Marcus Pretzell of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party speaks during AfD’s election campaign rally by ship on the river Rhine near Duisburg, Germany, last week. (Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)

PFORZHEIM, Germany (AP) - A nationalist party that wants Germany to close its borders to migrants, give up the euro and end sanctions against Russia is predicted to enter parliament for the first time, propelled by voters’ anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit over a million refugees since 2015.

Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is forecast to take between 8 and 11 percent of the vote on Sept. 24, giving it dozens of lawmakers in the national parliament. Some polls project that it could even place third behind Merkel’s party and the center-left Social Democrats.

If the predictions are correct, it would be the first time in 60 years that a party to the right of Merkel’s conservative Union bloc has attracted enough votes to enter the Bundestag.

“It’s quite an achievement for a right-wing party to clear the 5 percent minimum threshold,” said Gideon Botsch, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam near Berlin.

AfD’s poll numbers are all the more remarkable because the party has become increasingly extreme since its founding in 2013, according to Botsch.

“German voters haven’t wanted to vote for a right-wing party in recent decades,” he said. “Germany’s Nazi history is obviously one of the reasons for that.”

At an election rally last week in the southwestern city of Pforzheim, a mostly male, middle-aged audience gave a standing ovation to party co-leader Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old former civil servant. Gauland, a former member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, sparked controversy last year by saying that Germans don’t want to live next to a black football player.

He made headlines again recently for suggesting that the government’s integration czar should be “disposed of” in Turkey, from where her family emigrated before she was born.

In Pforzheim, Gauland touched on a subject the party’s supporters are particularly anxious about: the influx of migrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Only if we defend Europe against a new Islamic invasion,” he told the crowd, “do we have a chance to remain a majority in this country and survive.”

Gauland’s anti-Islam comments fell on fertile ground in Pforzheim, which is located at the northern tip of Germany’s Black Forest. His party achieved a surprise victory there in last year’s regional election. It now has seats in 13 state assemblies and the European Parliament.

Observers say AfD benefited from Pforzheim’s large population of so-called Russlanddeutsche — ethnic Germans who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and hold more conservative views than the general population.

One such voter, Waldemar Meister, said he thinks AfD is the only party that listens to ordinary people’s concerns.

“We’re lied to, we’re deceived (by the other parties),” he said.

According to Timo Lochocki, a Berlin-based researcher at the German Marshall Fund think tank, AfD’s success is partly due to the disillusionment voters feel with Germany’s established political parties. The development mirrors Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose election AfD enthusiastically endorsed.

Nico Siegel, head of the Infratest Dimap polling agency, said more than half of people who vote for AfD say they did so out of dissatisfaction with other parties, drawing votes from all the others.

“The AfD is like a vacuum cleaner for those unsatisfied with the other parties,” he said.

Although the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Germany has dropped sharply since 2015 , the issue remains at the top of the political agenda partly due to the absence of other major problems in the country, Lochocki said.

Germany’s unemployment is low, wages are rising and Merkel has absorbed most of her left-wing rivals’ political positions — from phasing out nuclear power to easing immigration rules.

“Merkel has lost credibility among conservatives,” said Bernd Lucke, one of the founders of AfD who left the party in 2015 after losing a leadership battle. Lucke said many German conservatives are unsure who they’ll back this time round.