News Analysis: Far-right Party’s Success Sounds Alarms in Germany
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News Analysis: Far-right Party’s Success Sounds Alarms in Germany

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Alarm bells are sounding after a right-wing party scored an unexpectedly strong showing in a German state election.

Five months before German national elections, the German People’s Union on Sunday scored the largest percentage of the vote won by a far-right party in any state election held in the country since World War II.

The unexpected electoral strength of the party — which received 13 percent of the vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt — could pave the way for the success of a far-right party in upcoming national elections this fall.

Experts on right-wing extremism estimate there is about a 15 percent right-wing voter potential in Germany, similar to that in other European countries such as France and Austria. Right-wing parties in those countries are strongly represented at the state level and have become a force in national politics.

But until now, far-right parties in Germany have had little success capitalizing on the nationalist and racist sentiments that continue to fuel right-wing violence here.

Poor organization, a lack of charismatic leaders and political infighting have splintered the political strength of the leading right-wing parties.

But even if no such party can mobilize within the next five months, the necessary 5 percent of the vote needed to enter the federal Parliament, the success of the People’s Union is causing shifts in the campaign focus of the major parties.

After Sunday’s election, the conservative Christian Social Union, a member of Bonn’s ruling conservative coalition, called for more emphasis on law and order and topics targeting the electorate’s national identity in order to counter voter drift toward the far right.

Political observers say the strong showing of the People’s Union has further weakened the reelection chances of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Many area residents blame the conservative Bonn government’s economic policies for unemployment rates as high as 40 percent in some regions of eastern Germany.

As a result of this anger, Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union captured just 22 percent of the vote in the state election, barely ahead of the Communist Party. The opposition Social Democrats emerged victorious, with about 37 percent of the vote.

Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor, has a substantial lead so far in national polls, and Sunday’s vote is likely to increase pressure on Kohl to step aside after 16 years at the helm and make room for a younger candidate to represent his party in the fall elections.

The xenophobic campaign mounted by the People’s Union was especially popular with younger Germans: Exit polls show it was the most popular party for voters under 30, capturing 27 percent of their votes.

Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said he is alarmed that 32 percent of the voters between the ages of 18 and 24 backed the People’s Union in Sunday’s voting.

“Until now, it was a taboo,” he said in an interview. “Many people said they could imagine voting for a right-wing party, but they did not. Now they have done it.”

Bubis charges that the People’s Union is the most racist and anti-Semitic of Germany’s far-right parties.

Michel Friedman, deputy leader of the German Jewish community, said he did not think the party would gain enough support nationwide to enter the federal Parliament.

Just the same, he called their showing in the state election “horribly worrisome.”

Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, designated the People’s Union as a party of people “who want to revive the ghosts of the past.”

He warned the German people not to be indifferent to the electoral success of the far right. Otherwise, Primor said in a newspaper interview, a German problem could become a world problem.

The surprise showing of the People’s Union in Saxony-Anhalt marks the first time since Germany’s 1990 unification that a far right party has entered one of the five eastern German state parliaments.

Until this election, the People’s Union had few members and no political significance in these five states. During the campaign, the party distributed large amounts of literature with campaign slogans such as “Get Rid of Criminal Foreigners” and “German Money for German Tasks.”

The party claims to have spent more than $1.5 million for the campaign in Saxony-Anhalt. If true, this would be more than all the other parties combined.

The campaign was funded by party founder Gerhard Frey, who set up the People’s Union in 1971.

After the success of the People’s Union in Sunday’s elections, German Television refused to interview Frey.

His brief appearance at the state Parliament in Magdeburg, the capital of Saxony-Anhalt, was accompanied by demonstrators yelling, “Nazis Get Out.”

The Munich-based Frey — who says he is contemplating running in the fall national elections — is Germany’s leading publisher of extreme right-wing publications. Intelligence officials estimate a readership of several hundred thousand for his newspapers and magazines.

His personal fortune from his publishing empire and real estate investments is estimated at several hundred million dollars.

Although anti-Semitism did not play a role in the campaign of the People’s Union, it is a frequent topic in Frey’s right-wing publications.

According to intelligence reports, articles he publishes contain phrases such as the “blackmailing Jews.” His publications also question German responsibility for the Holocaust and contain frequent attacks on Israel and the U.S. “Jewish lobby.”

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