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Scandals fail to knock Germany’s AfD off course before electoral tests

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Scandals buffeting Germany’s far-right AfD are unlikely to do enough damage to blow the party off course before pivotal elections this year, analysts say, but the votes will offer crucial insights into whether the centre can hold against an anti-democratic onslaught.

Embarrassing allegations of spying for China and collusion with Russia, after the bombshell revelation in January of a mass “remigration masterplan” for foreigners and German nationals alike backed by several party members, have sent the AfD’s poll numbers plunging to as low as 15% nationwide. That is its worst score since April 2023.

The reversal of fortune has given hope to moderate political forces that a projected strong showing for the AfD in the European parliament elections in June and three regional votes in September can still be blunted, perhaps even dousing some of the global momentum of rightwing populists.

But an alarming wave of violence on the campaign trail, in some cases blamed on known rightwing extremists, has raised the stakes as the AfD uses increasingly combative language to make its case to voters.

“It would be a mistake to place too much hope in the slipping poll numbers,” said Benjamin Höhne, a political scientist at Chemnitz University of Technology in Saxony, one of the three eastern states voting in September.

Höhne said the AfD’s strategy of “normalisation”, or making previously taboo positions mainstream, had been successful among a significant swathe of the German population who were unlikely to be swayed on election day by negative headlines.

“We’ve seen in the recent past that many [AfD] scandals failed to stick and not fewer but more people voted for them, both in the east and the west, because they’re not looking for a party that seeks constructive solutions in parliament but rather one that wants to undermine the current system,” he said. “We’re talking about committed rightwing extremist people who have turned their backs on democracy.”

More ideological and nationalist voters, however, may well be turned off by allegations of treason, Höhne said.

A landmark ruling on Monday threw out a bid by the AfD to stop surveillance of the party by domestic security authorities as a suspected extremist organisation. The decision by the superior administrative court in Münster, which the AfD is expected to appeal, is likely to reignite calls to ban the party outright – a move analysts say would have dauntingly high legal hurdles to clear.

Anna-Sophie Heinze, a researcher at Trier University, said that while there was still a protest voter component to the AfD’s base, it had long developed a solid constituency, meaning many of its supporters “say they can’t imagine voting for another party”.

Heinze said the injection of bloodshed into German politics unseen since the last general election in 2021 marked a “frightening” break with a European trend toward more peaceful campaigns.

Critics blame the AfD for whipping up aggression through its rhetoric, with frequent talk by party leaders of “hunting” their opponents. The party has responded that several of its candidates have also been attacked on the hustings, pointing the finger at “leftwing extremists”.

“These are no longer one-offs,” Herfried Münkler, a political scientist, said of the assaults, commenting on public television that it marked a troubling trend “that fundamentally calls into question our democracy”.

Heinze told the Guardian that her research showed a remarkable resilience among political officials that she compared to the defiant reaction of many prominent women facing incessant online abuse, “now more than ever”.

That push-and-pull could be seen in the street protests that sprang up in response to the “remigration” report in the winter, when hundreds of thousands rallied in defence of democracy. Thousands demonstrated again last weekend in Berlin and Dresden against attacks on politicians. The chancellor, Olaf Scholz, called on “decent and reasonable” people to continue to stand against violence in “democratic debate”.

Höhne and Heinze said they were fairly confident that the “firewall” against cooperation with the AfD would stand firm among the mainstream democratic parties, in effect barring it from power. But they warned that the temptation to co-opt the party’s stances and framing of hot-button issues such as migration tended to backfire.

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“Many studies show that it’s the far right that tends to benefit because voters want the original and not the copy,” Heinze said.

Several unpredictable factors threaten to turn the upcoming elections into nailbiters for the AfD as well as its opponents. One is the nascent party founded by the “leftwing conservative” firebrand politician Sahra Wagenknecht, which is threatening to upend the electoral arithmetic for coalition-building.

BSW, which stands for Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance), has put forward an eclectic platform ranging from bolstering workers’ rights and sharply curbing immigration to forcefully opposing western arms shipments to Ukraine.

Höhne said the unique mix from competing poles of the political spectrum could eat away at AfD support in the east, robbing it of a first-place finish in at least one of the state elections.

Another wild card is the youth vote. Kilian Hampel, a political scientist and co-author of the study Youth in Germany, found a surge in backing for the AfD among likely voters, which he attributed to widespread disaffection and anxiety after the coronavirus crisis. “Young people don’t really feel represented by the political class and don’t feel they have a say,” he said.

Rampant inflation in the last two years, the weak economy, soaring housing costs, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis and fears about old-age poverty are all major sources of stress for young Germans.

Hampel said the AfD had seized on such issues on platforms with youth appeal such as TikTok, which mainstream politicians such as Scholz and Robert Habeck of the Greens had only just started using.

“It may be a little too late for them,” he said. “But I’d recommend the other parties listen to young people about what concerns them and then see if they can change something, together.”

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