COVID lockdown opponents try to sway German election | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.08.2021

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COVID lockdown opponents try to sway German election

Germany's vaccine-skeptic Querdenker movement is competing with far-right populists to influence the election. But will their new party "dieBasis" attract voters?

Henning Hacker smiling into the camera

Henning Hacker went into politics to found the party 'die Basis' in response to COVID policies

Like many in his movement, Henning Hacker says he wasn't interested in politics until last spring. The 41-year-old IT and copyright lawyer, now Berlin leader of a new political party named "dieBasis" ("the grassroots"), says he would have been happy to live his comfortable urban life with his family in Berlin, voting every few years for whichever party he thought had the most sensible policies.  

But then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and with it came the government's first lockdown in March 2020. The actual restrictions varied by state, but across Germany it usually meant the closure of nonessential shops, theaters, cinemas and sports venues, and limits on social contacts, sometimes to the extent that more than two households weren't allowed to meet. 

Watch video 01:45

Berliners afraid of coronavirus lockdown (2020)

This was all too much for Hacker, who recognizes that COVID-19 is an illness that is dangerous "to a certain extent," but does not see it as dangerous enough to justify the lockdown measures that were imposed. 

"At first, my impression really was: OK, the measures might be a little over-the-top, but they want to play it safe, it seems reasonable," he told DW. "But then when it became clear — in April and May, I think — that the measures aren't helpful and the spread was within the boundaries of an ordinary infection, I thought: OK, now surely all the measures will be rolled back."

Querdenker demonstration with woman holding up a sign reading 'Freiheit' (freedom)

Anti-lockdown protesters claimed the government was curbing their freedoms to do away with democracy

Founding 'dieBasis' 

When that didn't happen, Hacker sprang into political action, believing he was defending Germany's constitutional freedoms. "I just thought — what? How can that be? Basic rights can only be suspended in emergencies," he said, before adding that he is surprised that more colleagues in the legal profession have not acted against the restrictions the government put in place. 

He joined the anti-lockdown protests that raucously occupied many German town squares throughout the past year, and which featured some dubious elements, up to and including far-right populists and conspiracy theorists. Hacker, meanwhile, who dismissed those people as a minority, became one of the founding members of dieBasis last July. 

He is impervious to all the arguments made by virologists and other scientific experts who appeared on all channels pleading with the public to take the new virus seriously. 

The idea that the government's prevention measures might have been the reason why Germany's COVID infection and the death toll remained relatively low last summer, or that those measures were necessary to protect the hospitals from being overburdened — all those points make no impression on him. 

Watch video 03:25

'The experience in other cities is like a look into the future'

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's public health authority for disease prevention, reported Friday that over 92,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Germany and more than 3.9 million people have been infected by the virus.

But to Hacker, the fact that Germany's intensive care units were never actually full proves the lockdown wasn't necessary, and that all public health measures currently in place — including providing vaccines — are not only unnecessary but also possibly harmful.  

The coronavirus campaign 

Thomas Bräuninger, a professor of political science at the University of Mannheim who researches how new parties are formed, describes dieBasis as a "classic protest party" held together by a single issue. But that doesn't mean that those who join the party are confined to one area of the political spectrum, he argues. 

"It's an extremely heterogeneous collection of individuals who come from very different motivations," said Bräuninger. "There's a general mistrust of elites — they say: Things can't go on like this, politicians do what they want, they should listen to the people. We're the grassroots, we're the people — that's why they go on about direct democracy." 

Though dieBasis' arguments fly in the face of advice from public health officials, the party does speak to a groundswell of anti-lockdown sentiment that is having a noticeable effect on Germany's election campaign.  

The pro-free market Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) have both adopted tougher anti-lockdown positions as the election campaign has worn on.

In late July, FDP leader Christian Lindner called for a "political guarantee" that there would be no new lockdown in the autumn. AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel made much the same demand in noisier terms at around the same time, releasing a statement claiming that "with its lockdown policies the state is destroying the prosperity of society." 


ICU with COVID patients in Halle

That Germany's intensive care units were never actually full proves to Hacker that the lockdown and all public health measures are unnecessary

Now, in late August, CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has apparently acquiesced to that pressure, appearing in the tabloid Bild to proclaim there would "never again be a lockdown" if he were elected.  

Weidel's intervention is particularly notable because in March 2020 she was equally angry at the government for not imposing tougher public health measures. As the coronavirus cases in all of Germany had barely reached a total of 1,000, she said in a statement that "the behavior of politicians is irresponsible and endangers life and limb of the people in our country." 

But this is a perfectly reasonable U-turn to take, according to Ronald Gläser, AfD spokesman in the Berlin party. "We were being presented as hysterics when Weidel said the borders had to be closed and the country had to prepare for a disaster scenario," he told DW. "But then the government saw the chance to use limitations of basic rights to create an emergency situation, like in a war. We're not denying the virus, but the danger has to be looked at soberly." 

Gläser admits that the AfD is now angling for the same voter group as dieBasis, but that the new party still has to prove that it can win votes "outside its bubble." 

"We're a reliable force for people who are concerned about these limitations to basic rights," he added.


Alice Weidel puts on her COVID mask at the AfD party conference in November 2020

Die Basis is angling for the same voter groups as the AfD, which is still the strongest opposition party in the federal parliament

The AfD was no alternative 

The dieBasis party now claims to have 25,000 members in Germany, which is not inconsiderable: The AfD currently has 32,000 members, and there are certain parallels between the two parties. 

Both were founded in direct response to what they saw as drastic and unlawful government measures imposed in response to a crisis: The AfD was formed in 2013 by a group of Euroskeptic economists angered by Germany's bailouts of weaker European Union economies. Like dieBasis, the AfD was then fed by a populist people's movement — in the AfD's case, it was the nationalist movement known as PEGIDA, which staged huge demos across Germany in 2015 and 2016. 

But the current comparisons are limited, says Hacker. He and many of his party members believe the bigger parties are simply opportunistic in sending out anti-lockdown messages now. 

"Among the established parties we didn't see any who were really open for the core points of criticism we had," he said. But he sees little overlap with the far-right populists either: "The AfD is a bit too nationalist for many of us," he said.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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