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PEGIDA will field candidates in Germany's regional elections in 2016, and aims to form a political party, the anti-Islamization movement has announced. The move comes in the midst of growing anti-refugee sentiment.
There was trouble at the joint PEGIDA/LEGIDA rally in the eastern German city of Leipzig on Monday night - fighting broke out at the city's main railway station, a journalist was assaulted, and PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann was caught in the eye by some thrown paint. But the overall numbers remained small - according to the local "Leipziger Volkszeitung" newspaper, around 800 anti-Islamization protesters faced at least the same number of counter-demonstrators, with some 900 police officers keeping them apart.
But in the middle of the street chaos, Bachmann made an ambitious announcement: PEGIDA is aiming to field "as many candidates as possible" in all four regional German elections in 2016 - in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt in March, followed by Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in September.
Not only that, the movement, which has attracted neo-Nazis from across the country as well as locals in the region, is aiming to set up a political party by the end of the year, ahead of the general election in 2017.
"It won't be under the name PEGIDA or anything," Bachmann told DW. "Nothing is definite yet, it is being discussed by the PEGIDA teams in the whole of Germany and Europe - how we do it is still open."
PEGIDA is working to legitimize its program and organize the disparate local clubs it currently represents. Its name stands for "Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes" or "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West," but associated protests have sprung up in several cities around Germany - including "Kagida" in Kassel, "Wügida" in Würzburg, "Bogida" in Bonn, and "Dügida" in Düsseldorf.
"We're going to put out a statement soon to make clear which of those officially belong to it - which have the right to call themselves PEGIDA," Bachmann said. He returned to head the group in February after he stepped down after a photo that appeared to show him with a Hitler moustache was circulated on the Internet and he was found to have made disparaging remarks about asylum-seekers on Facebook. "And then in the Germany team we will decide, how, and what, and the strategy and so on."
PEGIDA's popularity has dipped since January, when the world's press piled into Dresden to report on the movement's self-styled Monday evening "strolls" and attracted some 20,000 supporters. The movement was also damaged by high-profile departures, as well as the Hitler moustache incident. Despite this, Tatjana Festerling, PEGIDA candidate in Dresden's mayoral election, took some 9.6 percent of the vote in June.
Violence in Freital
But the anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany hasn't diminished. According to the latest report from the German Interior Ministry, released just over a week ago, the number of far-right attacks on refugee hostels in Germany more than tripled in 2014 to 170 - up from 55 a year earlier. In the past week alone, asylum-seekers' homes have been set on fire in Lübeck in northern Germany and Meissen, in Saxony. In the small town of Freital, near Leipzig, up to a hundred anti-immigrant protesters gathered around a refugees' home, where the inhabitants were protected by a group of local supporters.
The atmosphere in Freital has turned toxic since then. A town-hall meeting called on Monday night by Saxony's Interior Minister Markus Ulbig in Freital became ugly, as, according to German media reports, anti-immigrant protesters shouted down politicians and accused asylum-seekers of "disturbing the peace" in the area. Money spent on housing refugees was "wasted," they said, while local kindergartens and schools were being left unmaintained. According to news magazine "Der Spiegel," speakers who attempted to defend refugees had microphones snatched from them, and scuffles broke out.
Bachmann wouldn't comment on the incident directly, but said, "In principle we support any protests that are directed against economic migrants. We're behind those. But we do not support protests directly against homes where there are definite war refugees. In our 10-point program it says very clearly that we are for the exception of war refugees and people facing political or religious persecution. But we are for decentralized housing. We are against any home - homes are always pressure cookers for trouble."