Young men in Saxony-Anhalt are drawn to the extreme rightImage: AP
Young people drawn to far right in eastern Germany
March 23, 2011
Many people issued a big sigh of relief when the extreme right-wing NPD party failed to get any seats in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament elections. But although not successful overall, it won a high youth vote.
The far-right National-Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD, didn't win any seats in Sunday's state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, but it was particularly popular with young people. Although the party, which has aroused criticism for its links with racially motivated violence, only earned 4.6 percent of the overall vote, polls show that 15 percent of men under 30 cast their ballots for the party.
The fact that the NPD didn't manage the 5 percent hurdle to enter parliament, says Professor Hajo Funke, an expert on social and political issues who has written extensively about Germany's far right, does not mean that it has no influence in the state. It represents a culture of youth violence and aggression towards foreigners that is very present in society.
"The number of violent attacks in Saxony-Anhalt increased again in 2010," he said. "This culture of violence is a racist culture; it hasn't been properly dealt with and is still relatively strong."
In 2010, 42 percent of all attacks in Saxony-Anhalt were racially motivated, compared to 24 percent the previous year, according to an advice centre for victims of right-wing violence.
There have been attempts to ban the NPD, such as in a case brought by the German government to the Constitutional Court in 2001. But these attempts have failed.
The NPD is considered a fringe party, shunned by mainstream society. The party has no representatives at federal level, but has seats in two of Germany’s state parliaments.
The NPD didn’t stand in the 2006 Saxony-Anhalt state elections, but this year over 45,000 people voted for them. The party was more popular in rural areas, such as in Laucha, a town of 3,200 people, where its candidate, a chimneysweep with a Hitler moustache, polled nearly 19 percent of the votes. In cities like Magdeburg and Halle, it only won around 3 percent.
Funke says that cities are more multicultural and better at fighting right-wing movements; it's in rural parts of eastern Germany that the far-right, aggressive, racist culture of violence often dominates.
"The people who try to tackle this are in the minority or are even forced to leave," he said. "That's something that's exceptionally dangerous for a democratic society."
Michael Grunzel, spokesperson for the NPD in Saxony-Anhalt, rejects the notion that his party encourages violence. Indeed, he says, several NPD members were themselves physically attacked during the election campaign.
"Violence is not something that NPD members have promoted," Grunzel said. "It is carried out by people of all political tendencies and is now a part of daily life."
Putting German nationals first
The NPD makes no secret of its skepticism as to Germany's approach to immigration. The party proposes to abolish the right to political asylum, and to put foreigners working in Germany into a separate social security system.
"We [in the NPD] put our own nationals first," Grunzel said, claiming that this didn't make his party racist.
One of the key issues in the NPD's campaign in Saxony-Anhalt was the government's intention to open its labor market to EU citizens from central and eastern Europe in May.
"This will mean that the job market in Saxony-Anhalt will be overrun with cheap labor from eastern Europe," Grunzel said.
Saxony-Anhalt, with a jobless rate of 11 percent, has the highest unemployment and the lowest wages in Germany.
Grunzel attributes the NPD's popularity among young people to social factors and the feeling that German nationals are being sidelined.
"We assume that many young people whose families and jobs are rooted here are starting to think about their long-term future and that of their children," he said. "And people realize that it can't continue as it is in Saxony-Anhalt."
Analysts speculate that the high electoral turnout of over 51 percent contributed to keeping the NPD out of the state parliament.
Funke thinks that, in addition, other political issues became more important to the voters. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, for example, the Greens won support and were able to double their share of the vote.
The fact that the NPD's top candidate, Matthias Heyder, was accused of putting Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, on the Internet also may have driven votes away from the party.
"Every defeat is an emotional defeat for such a party," Funke said. "That doesn't mean that they can't carry on."
Grunzel admits that party members are demotivated and disappointed, but said that achieving 4.6 percent of the vote was not a bad result.
"We will carry on. We'll take each election as it comes," Grunzel said.