Saxony, Germany – Doreen, a saleswoman at a clothing store, stands in the town square of Görlitz, which is rapidly filling up with supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Around him, a largely gray-haired crowd number in the hundreds.
A band plays Dire Straits and a sign reads: “We share our pension, but not with everyone: solidarity requires borders.”
The event’s headliners are two of the party’s most prominent faces: Parliamentary Leader Alice Weidel and Co-Chair Tino Chrupalla, a Görlitz merchant and painter who in 2017 narrowly eliminated the Conservative incumbent to claim the district seat in the federal parliament.
“He’s a good man,” Doreen told Al Jazeera. “It says what many are thinking.”
Originally established to oppose the eurozone, the AfD has carved out a role as Germany’s main opponent of migrants and asylum seekers, and has finally faced backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies in the federal parliament for the first time in 2017.
It won 94 seats, making it the largest opposition party, with much of its support coming from the states of what was formerly East Germany.
Since then, it has been established in all state legislatures, where it campaigns against migrants, climate protection, LGBTQ rights, socialism, and the European Union.
The AfD has become even more nativist under the growing influence of its eastern branches, where prominent figures include Björn Höcke, a diehard who once called the Berlin Holocaust memorial a “memorial of shame.”
Germany’s national intelligence agency put the party under observation in March due to suspicions that it was involved in right-wing “extremism,” local media reported.
On the sidelines for much of the past two years as immigration fell from voters’ priorities, the AfD was initially caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic, before turning sharply against government lockdown measures and defending the right to refuse vaccination.
The party is voting about 11 percent nationally, down from the 13 percent it received in 2017.
But a historically weak campaign by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has created an opening in Saxony, where Görlitz is located, and the party has its strongest support.
A poll released by Insa last week put the AfD in front with 26 percent in Saxony, putting them in pole position. Its share of directly elected representatives statewide is projected to increase significantly, leading in nearly every district outside of major cities.
“The difference with previous years is that [Merkel’s] The CDU is doing very, very poorly these days; especially at the federal ballot boxes. And suddenly the AfD is becoming the strongest party, ”said Maik Herold, a political scientist at the nearby Technical University of Dresden.
Largely safe from Allied bombing in WWII, Görlitz boasts some of the most impressive architecture in Germany.
The winding cobblestone alleys and pastel-fronted houses of “Görliwood” are a popular setting for television series and film productions of the time, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inglourious Basterds.
The city is located on the border with Poland, marked by the Neisse river. Since Poland entered the Schengen area in 2008, there have been no border controls, allowing residents to cross the bridge to buy cheap zloty cigarettes.
The AfD has stoked little obvious fears of intruders – criminals and hundreds of migrant families from Iraq – who it says are infiltrating Germany undetected.
After German reunification in 1990, Görlitz has shared the downward trajectory of many cities in the former communist east.
State factories were privatized and closed, including a power plant that employed 6,000 people. As unemployment rose, younger residents went looking for work elsewhere and the population dropped by a quarter.
With an average age of 53.4 years, the Gorlitz district is today one of the oldest in Europe, according to Eurostat data.
Like the rest of Saxony, it was particularly affected by the pandemic. The state recorded more COVID deaths per capita than any other in Germany, and vaccine uptake is the lowest – only 54 percent are fully injected, compared to an average of 64 percent.
However, Saxon residents, and even AfD voters, still rate their lives and financial situation favorably, Herold said, but perceive that they are being excluded from further prosperity in the west.
“The main point is not the real inequalities, but the feeling of discrimination, which is deeply ingrained in the minds of the people here.”
Stoking Fears About Migration, COVID Vaccines
After a speech by Weidel denouncing what she claims are the federal government’s attempts to introduce mandatory vaccination “through the back door,” Chrupalla took the stage to loud cheers.
Beginning by warning that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was already driving a new wave of migrants into Germany, he praised the Danish government for its hard line on immigration and said Germany should adopt Copenhagen’s stated goal of admitting zero asylum seekers. .
“We want to decide for ourselves in Germany who can come and who can stay,” he told the crowd.
He also lashed out at other AfD family targets: conservatives who had abandoned their voters, the government that hampers business with regulations and bureaucracy, and health officials who are spooked by COVID-19 and want to vaccinate children. without the consent of their parents.
The CDU-led government of Saxony, he claimed, had directed public funds toward the state capital, Dresden, abandoning small towns like Görlitz.
“We are being fooled again, like after 1990,” he said.
Lutz, a construction worker from nearby Zittau, was eager to see Chrupalla speak.
He once supported the Social Democrats, then the CDU, and now he only trusts the AfD.
Political elites ignore issues such as depopulation, old-age poverty, rising inflation, and stagnant wages. The focus on climate is a particular problem.
“Climate change is the biggest nonsense there is. Germany cannot save the world … Everyone with a brain knows it. “
Throughout the speeches, jeers and chants came from behind the plaza, where a smaller, younger, masked group staged a counter-protest.
One of the organizers, Caroline Renner, has studied at Görlitz for five years, but is originally from Brandenburg, which was also part of East Germany.
“People are just dissatisfied, and when they are dissatisfied, they look for a way out and then they look for someone to take their anger out on,” the Green Party activist told Al Jazeera. “The AfD just used that, and said there is an enemy here, these are the foreigners.”
She hopes to live in Görlitz for the long term and does not want her to be defined by the far right.
“We have a large number of committed people here who are committed to a diverse society. It is not just brown and blue. It’s not just the Nazis. “
No matter how well the AfD performs, it will remain an outcast to the other parties, which refuse to cooperate with it at the federal or regional level.
But the match could still cause a setback in Saxony.
“We will take another triumphant victory [this weekend]. I’m sure of that, ”Chrupalla announced from the stage.
“Then we’ll look at their faces again in Dresden and Berlin and they won’t know what to say, and we’ll smile to ourselves.”