The far-right NPD party in Germany suffered slight losses in municipal elections at the weekend. But the result was far better than most had expected, and the group even secured some seats in western Germany.
NPD supporters are not afraid to make themselves heard
The National Democratic Party, or NPD, fought an effective rearguard action in Germany's recent municipal elections, retaining many of its seats despite being plagued by a number of problems this year.
As usual, they were strongest in the eastern German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Mecklenburg Pomerania, but they also enjoyed some success in Saxony-Anhalt, Saarland and even in the western city of Trier. Many experts, like Professor Steffen Schoon from the University of Rostock, believe that these types of results will become a regular fixture.
"The NPD has now gathered a base of regular voters," Schoon says.
In total the NPD have claimed well over 100 seats on regional and city councils. These municipal positions are far removed from the national government in Berlin, but NPD expert and journalist Olaf Sundermeyer says it's all part of the group's gameplan.
"For them it's part of their strategy to get seats in the local elections so as to build up their structure," he says. "Because all politics are local, all power is local, and therefore the NPD concentrates mostly on local and state elections."
However, the NPD isn't looking for political power in the traditional sense. The party is not trying to influence local policy or take charge of certain towns and cities, instead it is trying to raise its profile with the public, just by being in office.
"NPD local politicians are not doing any politics, they are only campaigning. They are misusing local parliaments for their campaign. They are 100 percent populists, they are not politicians interested in doing any kind of local politics," says Sundermeyer, who has spent the last three years with NPD officials and supporters researching a book called In der NPD: Reisen in der National Befreite Zone (which loosely translates as "Inside the NDP").
"They're only looking to maximize the public impact of their propaganda, that's why they want to use the local councils as a stage. On top of that, they're making money by being part time politicians. Even in these local councils they are receiving money from the state and this money they spend for their next campaign, for the next election."
This money is of crucial importance for the small NPD party, especially at the moment. Early in May, the party had to pay a fine of 2.2 million euros (over $3 million), after senior members were found guilty of embezzlement. This, coupled with the costs of fighting a protracted legal battle to prevent the party from being banned and declared unconstitutional, has driven the NPD to the brink of bankruptcy.
Party leader Udo Voigt (right) has spent a lot of time in court this year
"They have major problems. Were it not for these financial issues, then the success of the NPD in this German 'super election year' would have been much bigger than it is already," Sundermayer says.
The success may be modest - the NPD is indisputably a fringe party in Germany - but because of the legacy of Nazi Germany, any NPD success comes under close scrutiny here.
"They're an extreme right wing party, they're much more extreme for example than the nationalists in Great Britain [British National Party] that had a huge success in the European elections," Sundermeyer says. He draws many parallels between NPD policies and those of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist government of the 1930s and 40s.
"They want to re-socialize the economy; they want to get Germany out of NATO and out of the EU; they want to kick everybody that is not a 'pure German' out of Germany. With these goals they are on a very similar level to the old NSDAP party."
Party leader Udo Voigt, who recently won a leadership challenge staving off division within his own ranks, has headed up the NPD for over a decade. His party has been able to win seats in broader segments of Germany this year, thanks to a constitutional court decision in 2008, which scrapped the so-called five percent hurdle formerly in effect in Germany. While the country uses proportional representation, up until February 2008 a party had to win five percent of the vote to qualify for any seats in local councils, but the highest court in Germany deemed that this discriminated against smaller parties.
A poster in an NPD hotspot, Anklam in Mecklenburg West-Pomerania, reads "This is where we speak up"
Although the NPD lost ground in some regions compared to its performance in the last few years, it has compensated for this by being able to grab seats in areas where it usually had little or no influence, with one of Germany's western-most cities - Trier - being the prime example.
The traditional strongholds for the NPD are much further east, in former East Germany, where unemployment rates are higher, and where immigrants - especially from Eastern Europe - are making young people without higher education or special skills fear for their livelihoods.
In some areas in the eastern state of Mecklenburg West-Pomerania, the NPD is considered a mainstream party, according to Stephan Kraemer, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
"The good results for the far right parties are a trend, not an exception," he says. "This can be largely explained by the general public's frustration with mainstream parties."
"It's not the total social losers that are voting for them," journalist Sundermeyer explains. "It's the small people that are afraid to lose more in the future - actually it's the same people that voted for the NSDAP in the 20s and 30s of the last century. Plus, each society has a certain percentage of people who are racist, and they vote for the NPD in Germany."
Sundermeyer spent much of his time researching his book in these eastern regions, and says he was astonished to see that the NPD is considered a mainstream party in certain areas.
"You have festivals, or public holidays where the NPD gets itself involved with the local society. They hand out gifts to little children and they really take part. Maybe they organize some social activities at the local playgrounds, or at social clubs, and so on. For us it was pretty astonishing to see that such social work is basically an accepted norm in some parts of Germany."
Nationwide, the NPD accounts for 2.3 percent of the popular vote, but in the towns where it concentrates its resources, the party frequently woos between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population. The Reinhardtsdorf-Schoena constituency in Saxony was one of the NPD's biggest single successes during Sunday's ballots - there, it won 22 percent of the vote.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Chuck Penfold