Explainer-German protests against far-right head into third week

BERLIN – Hundreds of thousands of Germans have been demonstrating against right-wing extremism and the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the country’s biggest wave of protests for years.

Here’s what we know about the protests as they enter their third week:

WHAT SPARKED THE PROTESTS?

The protests began after a report that some senior AfD party officials discussed policies such as the mass deportation of citizens of foreign origin at a meeting with right-wing radicals in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

The proposals for “unassimilated citizens” to be deported to “a model state in north Africa”, reported by the media outlet Correctiv, horrified many Germans. Some have compared the proposals to the Nazis’ initial plan to deport European Jews to Madagascar and the meeting to the 1942 conference of Wannsee – near Potsdam – where Nazi officials plotted the Holocaust.

Many say they can no longer stay silent about the rise of Germany’s most successful far-right party since the Nazis.

The protests have also coincided with statements by business leaders fearing the impact of the rise of the far-right on Germany’s image and attractiveness to investors and foreign skilled labour.

WHO IS ORGANISING THE PROTESTS?

Civil society groups and alliances together with mainstream parties, trade unions and churches, with names like “Together against the Right”, “Cologne stands up” or “Live Democracy”, are largely behind the protests.

According to “Together against the Right”, protests are planned in some 160 towns over coming weeks.

HOW HAS THE AFD REACTED?

The AfD has sought to distance itself from the deportation proposal, saying it is not party policy. Co-leader Alice Weidel parted ways with an adviser who attended the talks in Potsdam.

But the report spotlighted extremist strands in the AfD that intelligence agencies have long warned about. The party is under government surveillance on suspicion of extremism.

AfD leaders have also sought to minimize the protests, saying images have been manipulated and the gatherings are an attempt by the government to distract from its failings.

WHAT ARE PROTESTERS CALLING FOR?

The protesters are looking to curb support for the AfD, which is polling in second place nationally and first in the three eastern German states holding elections this year.

One proposal being floated is a ban on the AfD, although the legal hurdles to that are high and many politicians fear it could backfire, allowing the party to depict itself as a victim and sparking even more anger at the political establishment.

More generally the protesters say they are looking to wake up society so it acknowledges the danger the AfD represents.

WHY IS THE AFD SO POPULAR?

Started originally in 2013 as an anti-euro party during the euro zone debt crisis, the AfD gained ground in 2015 as the only party to criticise then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy that let in hundreds of thousands of migrants.

It also gained supporters by campaigning against lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Latterly, it has won support as disillusionment with Germany’s mainstream political parties took hold during a cost of living crisis and surging inflation. It has also benefited from some discontent with the country’s push towards a green transition, which it says is too expensive.

It also opposes German support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion in 2022.

HAVE THE PROTESTS IMPACTED SUPPORT FOR THE AFD?

Two nationwide polls published this week showed a slight dent in support for the AfD but a separate poll on Thursday for the eastern state of Saxony showed it maintaining its position on 35%.

Analysts say the protests could affect the voting intentions of those who had hitherto been supporting the AfD simply out of frustration with other parties.

“People who do not share the AfD’s ideological agenda will possibly question whether they want to really support such a political orientation,” Ruediger Schmitt-Beck at Mannheim University told German broadcaster SWR.

For those who back the AfD out of conviction however, the protests will likely further entrench their position, contributing to the polarisation of society, he said.

The party still remains number two in polls, well ahead of all three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition.

HOW HAVE MAINSTREAM POLITICIANS REACTED?

Politicians from mainstream parties from across the political spectrum have welcomed the protests. Chancellor Scholz said in his weekly videocast it was clear Nazi race ideology could never again have any space in Germany.

Scholz, his foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and other senior politicians have attended protests.

The leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz, meanwhile has also softened his rhetoric on migrants, in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the AfD. REUTERS

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