Extremist parties exploit German anxiety

Germany’s most overtly neo-Nazi party secured a footing in a regional parliament yesterday for the first time in more than a generation.

The results for the state parliament elections in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg dealt a further blow to the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and his national coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.

The far right and the hard left made gains at the expense of the centrist parties.

But while the two elections brought to nine a string of regional poll setbacks for the deeply unpopular leader, the main opposition party, the Christian Democrats [CDU], were the bigger losers.

They forfeited their absolute majority in Saxony and slumped almost seven percentage points in Brandenburg, according to German state television projections.

The neo-Nazis of the National Democratic party of Germany (NPD), a party the government tried and failed to have banned last year because of its extremist views, took a projected 9% in Saxony and 12 seats in the state parliament in Dresden, one short of Mr Schröder’s party.

In Brandenburg another far-right party, the German People’s Union (DVU), slightly increased its share of the vote to about 6%, taking six seats.

It is the first time in Germany that a far-right party has increased its vote in two consecutive elections.

The overall winner in the two polls, however, is the hard left. The party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor to the old East German Communist party, scored its best result, with about 28% of the vote in Brandenburg, the rural state surrounding Berlin.

In Saxony the PDS took a projected 23%. It is running second in both polls.

The results signal a shifting political landscape in Germany, which for decades has been dominated by the two big parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, with the Free Democrats or the Greens playing the pivotal role.

While it remains improbable that the same thing could happen at national level, yesterday’s results indicate the volatility of the German public at a time of intense anxiety about the erosion of the generous welfare state.

“It’s a great day for Germans who still want to be Germans,” Holger Apfel, the NPD’s leading candidate in Saxony, told a news conference in parliament, Reuters reported.

The head of Germany’s Jewish community, Paul Spiegel, said: “A party that makes anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda doesn’t belong in any parliament.”

Campaigning against the government’s attempts to cut welfare benefits, against foreigners and immigrants, and on a platform to force German business to invest in Germany, the NPD has, with 9% of the vote in Saxony, won representation in a state parliament for the first time since 1968.

It made a pre-election pact with the DVU, both agreeing not to run against each other in the elections. And while the NPD did well in Saxony, the DVU increased its five seats in the Brandenburg parliament in Potsdam to six.

While the far right celebrated its relative success at the polls, the former communists capitalised on the widespread resentment and depression in eastern Germany.

Mr Schröder’s push to shake Germany out of stagnation and stubbornly high unemployment by, initially, cutting unemployment benefits from next year and shortening the time for which they are paid, dominated the election.

For months disgruntled east Germans have been taking to the streets to protest against the measures. While national unemployment is more than 10%, it is running at around 20% in the east.

·Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom party lost half of its support in an Austrian provincial election yesterday, the latest poll to confirm its slide since 2000. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel’s conservatives, who govern Austria with Mr Haider’s party, advanced to regain their majority in the province of Vorarlberg.

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