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Germany's far right mounts a comeback

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And more news from Europe. In Germany, a far-right, anti-immigrant political party has achieved a big milestone. A candidate for the Alternative for Deutschland Party has won a local election and will be governing a small district in the eastern part of the country. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, this is a sign of shifting political winds in Europe's biggest democracy.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The normally sleepy town of Sonneburg, in the state of Thuringia, was best known for its history of making toys. But last Sunday, the town made headlines for electing a far-right candidate as its head administrator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SESSELMANN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Robert Sesselmann told German media his victory means the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, is now a major party, and not just in the state of Thuringia but in the rest of Germany. And this is what political observers were afraid of.

JOHANNES KIESS: Basically, it was a matter of time when and where the AfD succeeds in one of these local elections.

SCHMITZ: Johannes Kiess is deputy director of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik-Institut for Democracy Research in Leipzig. He says the AfD, a party whose popularity rose several years ago in response to an uptick in migrants from the Middle East suffered during the years of the pandemic, when Germany's government was united in fending off COVID-19. But he says now, with Berlin squabbling over Russia's war in Ukraine and how to implement climate targets, the AfD's popularity is again on the rise. A recent national survey shows the party polling neck and neck with Germany's Social Democrats, the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR OLAF SCHOLZ: If we allow a spot for the AfD to put their anti-establishment messages within the public debate, then they are very successful and very good, I would say, even professional, in using these kinds of winners of opportunity.

SCHMITZ: The AfD party was founded a decade ago by a group of Euroskeptic academics and bankers. The party's branch in Thuringia, home to this week's local victory, has been classified as right-wing extremist by Germany's own intelligence services, the same agencies that have put the party under surveillance for more than two years for the threat it poses to Germany's constitution.

KRISTIN BRINKER: (Through interpreter) The public portrayal of our party is a very distorted one.

SCHMITZ: Kristin Brinker is chair of the AfD party in Berlin, and she's sick of her party being compared to Hitler's Nazis.

BRINKER: (Through interpreter) To put it plainly, I distance myself categorically from what happened during the Third Reich and find the constant historical comparison a rather difficult one.

SCHMITZ: Brinker says her party's victory this week signifies a normalization of the AfD's political agenda. But Lorenz Blumenthaler, an expert on Germany's right wing, says the AfD is anything but normal in a civil society. He says German media has normalized the AfD with its coverage.

LORENZ BLUMENTHALER: We know that this party is right-wing extremist. We know that this party is not interested in an open society. But nevertheless, every little step that they do to normalize their positions and to feed them up into the public discourse is covered in very extensive measure without really questioning their narratives but just by reproducing them.

SCHMITZ: He says the AfD's victory this week, albeit a small one in a region of only 57,000 people, sends a dark message.

BLUMENTHALER: A lot of people, especially the radicalized right-wing extremists, feel empowered through this. And I think that's something that we will see the more government seats the AfD is able to win over, that just ordinary right-wing hate crime will increase.

SCHMITZ: A survey released this week by the Else-Frenkel-Brunswick-Institut showed more than half of voters in East Germany feel their country needs a strong party in charge. A third of voters in the same survey agreed with the statement Germans are naturally superior to other peoples. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "TAO TAO LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.