Rightist groups in Germany rising on surge of resentment

Germany's anti-immigrant group Pegida is bouncing back to life, riding on a surge of resentment against Chancellor Angela Merkel's bold policy that opened the floodgates to refugees, and a united front among rightist extremists.

With Germany expecting to take in at least 800,000 people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and eastern Europe this year, the number of attacks against refugee shelters and refugees themselves has also risen since last month.

Shouts of "Merkel should go" and "lying press" rants against journalists pierce the air as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) demonstrators rally on the streets of Dresden every Monday, while sympathisers of conservative rightist AfD Party in Erfurt do the same every Wednesday.

Pegida marshalled around 10,000 demonstrators in Dresden on Oct 5, nearly as many as the numbers last seen in last winter's wave of protests. A week earlier, it drew around 7,000.

The weekly rallies had dwindled to about 1,000 by around July as its leaders squabbled and leading members left, and after being outnumbered by thousands of counter-demonstrations across Germany to promote tolerance for refugees.

"Pegida is there again. The reason is due to the refugee crisis. They are against the government's policy and what is perceived to be its stance for an uncontrolled influx" of asylum seekers, said Professor Hans Vorlaender of Technical University Dresden.

On Monday, some of an estimated 9,000 Pegida demonstrators in Dresden carried a mock gallows "reserved" for Dr Merkel and Socialist Party head Sigmar Gabriel, whose party is a coalition partner in government. Critics called it an invitation to a mob lynching.

While Pegida officially shuns violence, it has now asked its supporters to set up barriers on streets leading to refugee shelters.

Prof Vorlaender said Pegida's rhetoric is "radical like before", but its impact now is even more dangerous. "Its effect is inflammatory because the present situation in eastern Germany is very tense and people are nervous."

As the tone has become become aggressive, Pegida sympathisers have also physically attacked journalists covering events, with a photographer punched in the face and a television reporter kicked.

Pegida's comeback coincides with a growing popularity of AfD (Alternative for Germany), a euro- sceptic party likened by some to Britain's UK Independence Party for its capacity to be a rallying point for dissatisfied supporters of the centre-right mainstream. An AfD rally drew 5,000 people on Sept 30 in Thuringia's state capital Erfurt, but attracted around 8,000 a week later.

The latest opinion poll conducted on Oct 6 to 8 showed that if elections to the Bundestag national Parliament had been held on Oct 11, AfD could have won seats breaching the 5 per cent threshold required to gain representation, compared to 4 per cent last month.

The next German general election is next year.

Professor Hajo Funke, an expert on Germany's far-right, said rightist extremist groups "do their own thing normally, but co-operate when needed".

While the AfD officially distances itself from the far-right NPD (National Democratic Party), the media reported that NPD supporters had participated in the Oct 7 AfD rally attended by Mr Bjorn Hocke, Thuringia's AfD parliamentary group chairman.

"Mr Hocke is a leader who has managed to unite the complete rightist conservative, including the militant, spectrum," said Ms Katharina Koenig, a Left Party MP.

The previous government called the NPD a latter-day version of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, and the government is now trying to ban it as an "anti-constitutional" group.

This article was first published on October 15, 2015.
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