BBC, Sep. 10, 2002
By Angus Roxburgh
Just under a year ago, in the wake of the 11 September attacks, the spectre of the far right suddenly darkened the political landscape of Germany.
In the northern city of Hamburg, where, it emerged, some of the hijackers had plotted their crime, a new and marginal party – the Partei Rechtstaatlicher Offensive, or Law and Order Party – captured almost 20% of the vote. It was swept to power as part of a right-wing coalition in the city.
The party’s hardline and populist leader, Ronald Schill, is a former judge, known as “Judge Merciless” because of the harshness of the sentences he used to hand down.
He became Hamburg’s interior minister, responsible for the police, and began his campaign for the federal parliament, the Bundestag.
His party remains small – with only about 1,200 members – but it is shrill and xenophobic.
It advocates an end to immigration, the internment of foreigners with infectious diseases, and the “voluntary” castration of sex offenders.
Mr Schill has called for the removal of the right to political asylum from the German constitution.
In Hamburg, immigration was a sensitive issue even before the discovery of an alleged al-Qaeda cell there.
In the early 1990s, the city took in as many asylum-seekers as the whole of the United Kingdom.
Mr Schill made great play of the fact.
He blamed foreigners for the rise in crime rates, and soon became known as Germany’s answer to France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen or Austria’s Joerg Haider.
But Germany has pursued some of Europe’s most foreigner-friendly policies.
One of Gerhard Schroeder’s first acts as chancellor was to extend the possibility of German citizenship to millions of Turkish and other guest-workers.
The Social Democrat-Green government recently passed a law making legal immigration easier for qualified foreigners.
The Christian Democrat contender in this month’s elections, Edmund Stoiber, has pledged to reverse that law, but it does not appear to be a big vote-winner.
So Ronald Schill never seemed likely to repeat his Hamburg success nationwide.
And at the end of August he committed a blunder which almost ended his career even in Hamburg.
He used his right as a Hamburg city senator to address the Bundestag in Berlin during a debate on the recent floods emergency.
His behaviour was shocking. Not only did he over-run the allotted time – so much so that the Speaker had to cut his microphone – but he used what was meant to be an occasion for all-party consensus on rebuilding flood-damaged regions to slam the government for its policies on crime, immigration and taxation.
His xenophobic remarks caused an uproar.
Chancellor Schroeder warned of the growing threat of right-wing populism. “The Schills,” he added, “are not confined to Hamburg.”
Even leading members of Mr Schill’s own party distanced themselves from his remarks and called on him to drop his plans to complain to the Federal Constitutional Court about having his microphone cut. A poll of people in his Hamburg “stronghold” found 53% of them wanted him to resign.
At the moment he appears to be hanging on to his job in the city by a thread.
And as for his chances in the national elections, his party now stands no chance of passing the 5% hurdle to enter parliament.
Other far-right parties in Germany – the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) which the government is trying to have banned, the German People’s Union (DVU) and the Republikaner) also remain weak and divided.
So for the moment, Germany is bucking the trend that has seen the extreme right come to power, or close to it, in so many European countries.
Angus Roxburgh’s book, “Preachers of Hate: the Rise of the Far Right”, will be published in November.
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