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Searching for Explanations

Sabina CasagrandeSeptember 19, 2006

Politicians are scrambling to clarify why the far-right NPD won seats in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's state assembly last weekend. But explanations should be replaced by long-term deliberation, say analysts.

The NPD can count on the help of neo-Nazi comradeshipsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The debate about right-wing extremism in eastern Germany has been reignited following the success of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) in Sunday's elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The NPD won 7.3 percent of the vote, giving it six of the 71 seats in the eastern German state's legislature.

Gideon Botsch from the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam said the election results were to be expected.

"We had feared it would happen, so we weren't surprised," said Botsch, an expert on right-wing extremism.

The "nice Nazi from next door"

According to Botsch, the results were in part due to the party's strategy. For one, the NPD had the help of neo-Nazi comradeships.

Wahlen in Mecklenbug-Vorpommern NPD Plakat
The NPD campaigned in every corner of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania -- with successImage: AP

"The NPD is allied with these groups, who, for example, systematically apply intimidation tactics at events of the major democratic parties," Botsch said. In addition, the NPD took on a very civic appearance.

"It's the idea of the nice Nazi from next door," said Toralf Staud, author of the book "Modern Nazis" and a writer on right-wing extremism since 1998. These neo-Nazis have become an integral part of civil society across wide areas in eastern Germany. In small towns and villages, right-wing extremists have for the large part taken over civic programs for children and youth, for example.

"They are in parents' associations in schools and kindergartens or in sports clubs and use their position there to relay their ideas to the people," Botsch said.

There, where the state and its educational facilities are increasingly retreating, where sociopolitical groups such as religious communities are closing down their institutions, neo-Nazis are investing in youth work -- and infiltrating a generation with their ideology.

German democracy neglects society's perimeter

The election results were also the result of Germany's democratic parties' policies, which increasingly neglect certain areas of society, Botsch said.

According to the latest data report by the Federal Statistics Office, only 38 percent of eastern Germans consider democracy to be the best form of government for Germany. In western Germany, it was 71 percent.

"There are regions in which democratic structures no longer exist," Botsch said. There are no schools, no doctors and no churches. "The people are frustrated and ask themselves, what alternative do we have? The NPD then channels this frustration."

Canvassing made a difference

According to the NPD, it invested 400,000 euros ($508,000) in its election campaign. The NPD in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania got help from Saxony's parliamentary group leader Holger Apfel, an experienced campaigner. Professional "comrades" helped with organization and public relations work.

Holger Apfel NPD Sachsen
Holger Apfel from Saxony's NPD helped organize the campaignImage: AP

"This was the most professional election campaign I have ever seen," Staud said. The party had managed to canvas throughout the state, too.

"I saw towns where only NPD posters were hanging," Staud said. "The other parties didn't even go there." Flyers were written in a highly professional manner and in a way that was especially attractive to young people. "The language was snappy and cheeky."

"The major parties don't go into small towns for the few votes there. The NPD does and it adds up," Botsch said. "The NPD was present, and not just with posters, but with concrete people."

Long standing discussions necessary

The Central Council for Jews in Germany called the election outcome "alarming" and accused German politicians of failing to adequately combat the far-right.

"The results of the election are dismaying and a sign of political bankruptcy," the council's president, Charlotte Knobloch, said in a statement.

Politicians faced the same situation two years ago, after the right-wing NPD won seats in Saxony's legislature. For a short period, politicians were outspoken in addressing the problem. But the debate quickly died off.

"In Germany, people either talk about right-wing extremism hysterically or not at all," author Staud said. He said the current debate would also soon wane.

"This will have disastrous implications in the long-term," Staud said. "We are lacking a calm, factual and consistent discussion on this issue."

Should the NPD be banned?

The election results have also reignited a discussion on whether the NPD should be banned. In March 2003, an attempt to prohibit the party failed when the Constitutional Court ruled that the federal government's use of informants within the NPD was illegal.

Schweriner Schloss am Abend Landtag von Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Six representatives of the NPD will be part of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's parliamentImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Cornelius Weiss, head of the SPD parliamentary group in Saxony's state legislature, said a ban was not the answer. The best way to deal with the NPD representatives was to arm oneself with knowledge in order to have the right answer for any provocation.

"I fear that the party would disappear into the underground relatively quickly," Weiss told the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. "It's better to argue with these people in an open battle."

Saxony's premier, Georg Milbradt, said bans could not be the preferred form of societal debate.

"This would not put an end to right-wing extremism," Milbradt told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung. "It would just take on a different organizational form."

Botsch said that the NPD strategy runs under the slogan: Fight on the streets, fight for minds and fight in parliament. In eastern Germany, this strategy has borne fruit.