The lead-up to March elections in Germany is unusually dramatic, with center-left parties making big mistakes. Fearing the rise of populism, several politicians tried to boycott a populist party. And it backfired.
For over a year, Germany's leading parties have been losing a public relations battle to the right. The latest loss - involving a failed attempt to boycott xenophobia and an utter lack of political savvy by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens - begs the question whether these parties actually want to win state elections in March.
It began in December. Looking ahead to state elections, Germany's southwestern public broadcaster - SWR - announced its plan for a live roundtable discussion with the leading candidates in Baden-Württemberg state to be held three days before the vote in mid-March. The broadcaster was considering whether to invite the candidate from the right-wing populist "Alternative für Deutschland" (Alternative for Germany or AfD). But the state premier, Winfried Kretschmann (Greens - pictured above), said if the AfD were there, then he wouldn't appear. Neither would his vice premier, Nils Schmid (SPD).
The fight didn't stop there. Soon, the state premier of neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, also found herself on the defensive against accusations of censorship, as did Saxony-Anhalt's public broadcaster MDR. Enter Rhineland-Palatinate's rival CDU candidate for state premier, Julia Klöckner: she boycotted the event in support of free speech, blasting the center-left for hypocrisy.
Premiers of neighboring states, Hannelore Kraft (left) and Malu Dreyer, have both refused to appear with AfD on TV out of principle
Nearly one month later, Rhineland-Palatinate's popular incumbent, Dreyer, is showing signs of cracking under the strain, and her North Rhine-Westphalian counterpart, Hannelore Kraft - whose year can be summed up by crisis, police ineptitude and the New Year's Eve's assaults in Cologne (the state's largest city) - has also taken sides.
According to a weekend survey by "Bild," roughly 53 percent of people asked want AfD to appear in the debate.
All the wrong moves
"You could say that it was a move in the wrong direction that possibly more or less had the opposite effect," Alexander Häusler, from the Research Unit for Right-Wing Extremism/Neo-Nazism at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, told DW.
A euroskeptic party that emerged in 2013, the AfD is now seen by critics as an anti-political correctness, right-wing populist party with a xenophobic slant. For example, last year, an Afd politician from Thuringia, Björn Höcke, shouted "Three thousand years Europe! One thousand years Germany" at a demonstration. He later denied in a nationally televised interview that his words were reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's "Thousand-Year Reich!" rallying cry.
Its open support for the National Front in France and the Austrian Freedom Party also underscores the fact that it's "no ordinary party," Häusler says, refuting some AfD politicians' claims that they are being wrongly labeled based only on Höcke's quasi-Nazi rants.
The election roundtable debacle "confirms their beliefs that here in Germany, politics rules the 'lying press' or 'lying media,' tells it what to do, and these politics exclude certain opinions," he says.
Höcke was investigated in the fall for incitement of hatred, and though the probe has ended, his reputation dogs the party
A new phenomenon
The mistake by the SPD - who are coalition partners with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) - lies in its fear of losing the core votes of ordinary people, as the effects of the refugee crisis are felt.
"These are developments that touch on real problems to some extent and are thus also the reason why right-wing populism has been able to gain ground in Europe, including among left-leaning voters," Häusler told DW.
And while Germany has dealt with nationalist parties since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949, the AfD poses a new problem: a party that has established itself out of the refugee crisis, but that doesn't come from the right-wing extremism scene, as was the case with the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
In October, some 4,000 AfD supportesr protested Chancellor Merkel's asylum policies during a demonstration held in Erfurt
A threat to Merkel?
Chancellor Merkel's center-right CDU and CSU have drifted toward the left since forming a coalition with the center-left SPD in 2013. That drift left a gap to their right, now filled with party-less voters taken with the AfD, which speaks to their fears of losing their high standard of living, losing their culture to Muslims and losing their political voice at a time when the coalition parties hold nearly 80 percent of seats in parliament.
If projections prove true, the AfD could take roughly 10 percent of votes in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in the spring. That would mean not only the first major gains in western Germany states, but also representatives from the xenophobic party in half of the country's state parliaments.
It's too early to speculate about the 2017 elections, which will herald a fourth term for Frau Merkel, or her departure, Häusler says, noting that the media has lost sight of a telling characteristic of the AfD.
"They present themselves as a political alternative capable of action in contrast with the so-called 'old parties.' The reality is exactly the other way around. This party is marked by considerable conflicts, quarreling and power games," he says. "The AfD is not capable of action in its current state and is only winning votes because its riding on the xenophobic ticket and because it's made its own unique selling point."