Saxony, Germany – Doreen, a clothes seller, can be found in the town square of Görlitz, which quickly fills with supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Around her, a largely gray-haired crowd swells by the hundreds.
A band plays Dire Straits and a sign reads: “We share our pension, but not with the whole world: solidarity demands borders.
Headliners at the event are two of the party’s most prominent faces – House leader Alice Weidel and co-chair Tino Chrupalla, a shopkeeper and painter from Görlitz who in 2017 narrowly removed the outgoing curator for claim the seat of the district in the federal parliament.
“He’s a good man,” Doreen told Al Jazeera. “He says what many think. “
Originally created to oppose the eurozone, the AfD has carved out a role for itself as Germany’s main opponent to migrants and asylum seekers, eventually resisting Chancellor Angela’s immigration policies. Merkel in the Federal Parliament for the first time in 2017.
It won 94 seats, making it the largest opposition party, with much of its support coming from the states of the former East Germany.
Since then he has established himself in all state legislatures, where he campaigns against migrants, climate protection, LGBTQ rights, socialism and the European Union.
The AfD has become even more nativist under the growing influence of its eastern branches, where leading figures include Björn Höcke, a hardline supporter who once referred to the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “memorial of the shame “.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency put the party under observation in March over suspicion that it was engaged in “right-wing extremism,” local media reported.
Sidelined for much of the past two years as immigration fell from voters’ priorities, the AfD was first caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic, before pivoting strongly against government lockdown and defend the right to refuse vaccination.
The party gets a poll rate of around 11% nationally, below the 13% it received in 2017.
But a historically weak campaign by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has created an opening in Saxony, where Görlitz is located, and the party enjoys its greatest support.
A poll released by Insa last week put the AfD in the lead by 26% in Saxony, putting it in pole position. It is expected to dramatically increase its share of directly elected representatives statewide, leading in almost all districts outside of major cities.
“The difference with previous years is that [Merkel’s] CDU is performing very, very poorly these days; especially in federal election polls. And if suddenly the AfD becomes the most powerful party, ”said Maik Herold, a political scientist at the nearby Technical University of Dresden.
Largely untouched by Allied bombardments during WWII, Görlitz has one of the most astonishing architectures in Germany.
The winding cobblestone lanes and pastel-facade houses of ‘Görliwood’ are a popular backdrop for period television series and film productions, including The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inglourious Basterds.
The city is located on the Polish border, marked by the river Neisse. Since Poland entered the Schengen area in 2008, there have been no border controls, allowing residents to cross the bridge to buy cheap cigarettes in zloty.
The AfD has stoked poorly proven fears of intruders – criminals and hundreds of migrant families from Iraq – who it says are creeping into Germany undetected.
After German reunification in 1990, Görlitz shared the downward trajectory of many towns in the formerly Communist east.
State-run factories have been privatized and closed, including a power plant that employed 6,000 people. As unemployment rose, young residents moved elsewhere to look for work, and the population shrank by a quarter.
With a median age of 53.4 years, the district of Gorlitz is today one of the oldest in Europe, according to Eurostat data.
Like the rest of Saxony, it has been particularly affected by the pandemic. The state has recorded more COVID deaths per capita than any other in Germany, and the vaccination rate is the lowest – only 54% are fully injected, compared to an average of 64%.
Nonetheless, the people of Saxony – and even AfD voters – still rate their lives and their economic situation favorably, Herold said, but perceive they are excluded from further prosperity in the west.
“The main thing is not the real inequalities, but there is the feeling of being discriminated against, which is deeply ingrained in people’s minds here.
Fueling fears over migration, COVID vaccines
After a speech by Weidel denouncing what she claims to be attempts by the federal government to introduce compulsory vaccination “through the back door”, Chrupalla took the stage to cheers.
Beginning by warning that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was already driving a new wave of migrants to Germany, he praised the Danish government for its tough line on immigration and said Germany should adopt the declared Copenhagen target of admitting zero asylum seekers.
“We want to decide for ourselves in Germany who can come and who can stay,” he told the crowd.
He also lashed out at other familiar AfD targets – conservatives who had deserted their constituents, the government hampering business with regulation and bureaucracy, and health officials who fear-mongering about COVID-19 and want to vaccinate children without their parents’ consent.
The CDU-led government of Saxony, he claimed, had directed public funds to the state capital, Dresden, abandoning small towns like Görlitz.
“We are deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.
Lutz, a construction worker from nearby Zittau, was eager to see Chrupalla speak.
He once supported the Social Democrats, later the CDU, and now he only trusts the AfD.
Problems such as depopulation, elderly poverty, rising inflation and stagnant wages are ignored by political elites. The emphasis on climate is a particular scarecrow.
“Climate change is the biggest nonsense there is. Germany can’t save the world… Everyone with a brain knows that.
Throughout the speeches, taunts and chants came from behind the plaza, where a smaller, younger, masked group staged a counter-demonstration.
One of the organizers, Caroline Renner, studied in Görlitz for five years, but she is from Brandenburg, also formerly part of East Germany.
“People are just dissatisfied, and when they are dissatisfied, they look for an outlet, then they look for someone to vent their anger on,” the Green Party activist told Al Jazeera. “The AfD just used that and said there is an enemy here, it’s the foreigners.”
She hopes to live in Görlitz for the long term, and doesn’t want it to be defined by the far right.
“We have a large number of committed people here who are engaged in a diverse society. It’s not just brown and blue. It’s not just the Nazis.
Whatever the performance of the AfD, it will remain an outcast for the other parties, who all refuse to cooperate with it at the federal or regional level.
But the party could still cause upheaval in Saxony.
“We will achieve another triumphant victory [this weekend]. I’m sure of it, ”Chrupalla announced from the stage.
“Then we’ll look at their faces again in Dresden and Berlin and they won’t know what to say – and we’ll smile at each other.”