In an bid to take a seat in the Bundestag at the next election, the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) is targeting young voters and rural areas with a new serious campaign approach.
Neo-Nazis in suits: The NPD's respectable facade
How strong exactly is Germany's right wing National Democratic Party? This is not an easy question to answer. Estimates vary as to how many members the NPD could have.
In 2004, the estimates put the number of new members at 300 while a year later it was as high as 5,300. Then there were the recent elections in Schleswig-Holstein, where the NPD won 1.9 percent of the vote, and North Rhine-Westphalia, where the radical right secured 0.9 percent. These results hint at a support nearing 70,000, up from 2,300 in 2000.
Whatever the numbers, it doesn't seem enough for the NPD. With early elections due before the end of this year, the NPD are looking to gain three direct mandates and cross the five percent threshold which will see them enter the Bundestag. The far-right party is under no illusions, however. This target is a tall order. But that isn't stopping them from trying. A new campaign to attract younger voters and rural voters with more serious policies is currently underway.
The NPD seems to have been inspired by its recent election successes and the failure of the government to have the party banned under constitutional law. But despite what the party considers to be a golden period, it continues to be snubbed by the main parties even when members make it onto local authority councils. The target, therefore, becomes credibility on a federal level. And for that, the NPD needs more support and the targets are young people and people who have escaped the net of the big parties.
Support in exchange for working for the NPD
The party is rebranding itself as the "underdog" to attract youngsters who have become disillusioned by the mainstream parties. "We find these youngsters and politicize them if they are not already. They work for the party," Uwe Leichsenring, an NPD member in Saxony's state government said. Leichsenring adds that the youngsters who are attracted to the NPD get support in exchange for their allegiance. "We have a children's group, a singing group and a climbing group. We are of the opinion that a child who is not on the street will not get into trouble. We keep them occupied."
The NPD is also targeting the disgruntled workforce in rural areas in its bid to portray itself as a credible alternative in the political arena by campaigning on issues such as the improvement of services and the fight against corruption in places where the main parties have ignored. But Nabil Yacoub from the Foreign Council in Dresden believes the party is just employing populism and playing on people's fears away.
Rural areas slip through the mainstream net
"The NPD continually use their populist slogans, especially at this time of such uncertainty amongst the population regarding rising costs and the state of the social system," Yacoub said. "In the country areas, they are even more aggressive. The social infrastructure, education facilities and such is centered on the towns. The countryside is ignored and the NPD finds a receptive audience there. We sometimes do project days in rural schools and we are shocked by how swayed they are. Many teachers say that they would lose a whole class if they spoke out against the far-right."
In the countryside, the supposed connection between the high proportion of foreigners and increasing unemployment for Germans doesn't have the same impact as in towns. But NPD representative Leichsenring admits that the focus is not just on the danger of foreigners taking jobs but foreigners in general.
Xenophobic policies remain
"In Saxony, the foreigners in the job market make very little impact. Most of them don't work anyway, mostly because they don't want to. The discussion here is whether you want to live in a part of town where it is 80 percent foreigners. If you like that then there is always the opportunity to live in Cologne or Frankfurt. But we don't want this and those here who don't want this know who to vote for."
For Stephan Siegmund, the leader of the Lutheran church in the Königstein parish, an NPD stronghold, this kind of hostility to foreigners is nothing new. "The NPD offers very simplistic answers to very complex questions and many people just want easy answers," Siegmund said. "However, look at our East German past. There was also a latent racism. There was a lot of negativity and hostility towards foreigners."
NPD sells national identity and German pride
However, the negative posture towards foreigners is only one component of the NPD ideology. The party is also taking up the torch of protecting Germany from supranational institutions and the loss of national identity.
"One day, the citizens will have to consider which way they want to go," Uwe Leichsenring said. "If they want to go (the supranational way), then they must choose the SPD or CDU. If they want to go the other way then they should choose the NPD. We want back our nation state and not to be steered by Brussels. We want out of EU and NATO, to be neutral and to have our own currency along with giving more say to the people."
Many see through the new approach
The NPD members canvass with a public-friendly approach while dressed respectably in suits but many people still see through the new approach and find the old xenophobia, racism and connections with far-right violence hidden behind them.
"Whatever they say, they are still the NPD and won't get a shot," said one resident. Similar opinions throughout the country suggest that the NPD will have to adapt into a completely different political entity to gain the support they need to get into the Bundestag in the coming election.