An anti-refugee, ultra-conservative populist party made huge gains in Germany's regional elections on Sunday and further cemented its recent surge to the forefront of the nation's politics.
The controversial Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, secured seats in all three regions that voted and was the second-most-popular party in one of them.
The vote is a big victory for the once-fringe party, reflecting national divisions over how Chancellor Angela Merkel has handled the refugee crisis in the first major elections since she implemented Germany's open-border policy last year. Alternative for Germany has been steadily rising in polls since then, amid a current of anti-immigration sentiment.
Until recently, Germany had largely escaped the rise of ultra-conservative political parties that have gained support in countries across Europe thanks to anti-European Union and anti-immigration platforms. Now that may no longer be the case, suggesting that the populist rhetoric lifting other nations' reactionary political movements is also finding a receptive audience in Germany.
This could pose a challenge not only to Germany's political establishment, but to its status as the European country that has arguably done the most to relieve the immense and ongoing refugee crisis.
What Is The Alternative For Germany Party?
The AfD was founded in 2013 by German economists who opposed their country's heavy involvement in economic bailouts for smaller European nations like Greece. But while the party originated from economic concerns, its platform has subsequently shifted to such a degree that some of its founders have left and withdrawn their support.
Last year, founder Bernd Lucke quit the AfD in protest after losing a leadership election and condemned the party's turn to xenophobia and populism. Other once-prominent figures in the party have done the same. One former party chairman, Franz Niggemann, specifically decried what he called the AfD's illiberalism and hostility toward minority groups.
After the AfD ousted Lucke, it began to focus on immigration and appeal to voters who opposed Germany's admittance of more than 1 million refugees and migrants last year. With a different direction and a charismatic new leader in 40-year-old Frauke Petry, the party has gained prominence and increasing support at the polls. It has also been heavily criticized by German media and politicians who allege that the party is using racist rhetoric and fear mongering to rile up voters.
Who Is Frauke Petry?
Frauke Petry is a former scientist from Dresden, Germany, whose political rise has coincided with the AfD's move toward an anti-immigration stance. Now the face of the party, she has attacked members of Germany's political establishment and Merkel for their handling of the refugee crisis. Last year, she publicly called for the chancellor to step down.
While Petry's call to secure borders and reduce immigration has appealed to a number of Germans, she has also received heavy criticism. Earlier this year, her suggestion that police could use firearms to shoot migrants illegally entering the country drew widespread condemnation.
Petry has frequently sparred with German media, referring to members of the press as liars. Meanwhile, many outlets have accused Petry of being a pleasant cover for extreme, racist elements within her party. The news magazine Der Spiegel featured Petry on the cover of its Feb. 6 issue, which was titled "The Hate Preachers."
How Did They Get So Popular?
For the growing number of refugees and migrants fleeing countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in the last year, Germany has become a desirable destination due to its acceptance of people seeking asylum.
While Merkel's humane response won her applause, the lack of a cohesive European response to the crisis and the continuous influx of people has also led to backlash and falling popularity ratings.
Opposition to admitting refugees has sometimes taken on violent and grotesque dimensions. Last year, over 1,000 refugee homes in Germany were attacked.
Petry and the AfD have seized on this division and dissatisfaction, using campaign slogans like "stop the asylum chaos." The party, whose supporters are around 71 percent male, according to The Guardian, has also been linked to the notorious anti-Islam protest movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or PEGIDA.
A large percentage of AfD supporters have also never voted before, and credit the refugee crisis for spurring them to cast their ballots. Some supporters have said the party has allowed for an expression of right-wing nationalism, something that is often suppressed in Germany due to its Nazi history.
How Bad Is This For Merkel?
While Merkel acknowledged on Monday that the elections were "a terrible day" for her party, analysts say it's unlikely this will provoke any major change in her leadership. Others have pointed out that the majority of voters in the regional elections still opted for parties that support the current refugee policies.
Merkel has previously characterized the AfD as a "temporary phenomenon," and her spokesman vowed that she would continue the country's refugee policies. But the chancellor is now backing a provisional deal between the EU and Turkey that's meant to deter refugees from crossing the sea to Greece and to reduce the number of people being resettled in Europe.
Human rights groups and observers have condemned the plan as inhumane and say it violates international law, pointing out that it would only cover Syrians and would force migrants or refugees who reach Greece back to Turkey. But Merkel and other EU leaders hope it will deter further migration.
Germany is also eyeing a federal election in 2017. Observers believe Merkel is seeking a fourth term, and analysts say the rise of anti-establishment political powers will be a concern for the current government.
The AfD, meanwhile, now has seats in half of Germany's regional governments and will be looking to gain even more.