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A mayoral race in a small city highlights the rise of Germany’s far-right AfD party

Popularity growing for populist party Alternative for Germany
AfD candidate for mayor of Nordhausen, arrives at the polling station to cast his ballot, in Nordhausen, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. The German city of Nordhausen is best known as the location of the former Nazi concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora. A mayoral election on Sunday could again put the focus on the municipality of 42,000 people if a far-right candidate wins the vote. (Silvio Dietzel/dpa via AP)

The German city of Nordhausen is best known as the location of the former Nazi concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora.

On Sunday, a mayoral election again put the focus on the municipality of 42,000 people over fears that a far-right candidate would win the vote — a prospect the town ultimately seems to have avoided.

Preliminary results Sunday night showed Joerg Prophet, a candidate from the populist far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, losing the race to incumbent mayor Kai Buchmann, who is not affiliated with a political party.

After an initially close race while votes were counted, Buchmann had 54.9% of the vote, compared with 45.1% for Prophet, according to the news agency dpa.

The results were a surprise after Prophet entered the race as the frontrunner: Earlier this month, he won 42.1% of the vote in the first round of the election, far ahead of Buchmann and other candidates.

Despite Prophet’s apparent loss, Sunday’s election underscored recent gains nationally for the AfD and the increasing influence it has on the political discussion in Germany. It also raised concerns about the normalization of far-right rhetoric in places like Nordhausen, drawing criticism from Holocaust survivors and those who work to combat discrimination.

“The significance of the election in Nordhausen extends far beyond (its) borders,” Felix Klein, the German government’s antisemitism commissioner, told the Funke Media Group.

The AfD was founded as a euroskeptic party in 2013 and first entered the German Bundestag in 2017. Polling now puts it in second place nationally with around 21%, far above the 10.3% it won during the last federal election in 2021.

The party has seen its support grow for a number of reasons. Its politicians have seized on frustration with the German government’s climate and energy policies, such as the plan to replace fossil-fuel heating systems with greener alternatives.

What’s more, a spike in the number of asylum-seekers entering Germany in recent months has put political attention back on the topic of migration, which has long been the AfD’s signature issue.

“The AfD mobilizes their support with two fearful narratives related to cultural and economic modernization: Both migration and climate policies are turned into a threat to people’s cultural identity and lifestyle,” said Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant who tracks far- and extreme-right rhetoric in Germany.

That strategy has proven successful in recent months. In addition to growing its support nationally, the AfD won its first executive-level positions earlier this summer: An AfD candidate was elected county administrator in the eastern city of Sonneberg in June, and in July, the party won its first mayorship in the town of Raguhn-Jessnitz.

The AfD’s strength, particularly in eastern Germany, has prompted discussions among other parties about whether and how to cooperate with it. Despite a longstanding taboo against collaborating with the far right, the center-right Christian Democrats in Thuringia made headlines when they recently passed new tax legislation with AfD support.

In Thuringia, the state in which Nordhausen is located, the AfD is both especially strong and especially radical. Recent polling puts the party in first place in Thuringia, where most surveys have its support above 30%.

Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, is the symbolic face of the party’s furthest-right faction. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has placed the AfD’s Thuringia branch under formal observation.

Hoecke has espoused revisionist views of Germany’s Nazi past. In 2018, he referred to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and called for the country to perform a “180-degree turn” in its memory culture.

As a result, there was a particular significance to the prospect of an AfD mayor in a city like Nordhausen, given the work that has been done there to preserve the Mittelbau-Dora camp as a site of memory and to rebuild trust among Holocaust survivors.

“It’s inconceivable that the last survivors of the concentration camps and their families (…) could be welcomed in Nordhausen by a mayor from the ranks of a party whose political program consists of calls for xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, antigypsyism, nationalism and revisionism,” an international committee of survivors of Mittelbau-Dora and the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp said in a statement.

With three important state-level elections in Germany’s east on the horizon in 2024, including in Thuringia, there is increasing pressure on Germany’s other political parties to combat its rise.

Winning posts like mayorships and growing its support nationally helps normalize the AfD in the German political landscape, and puts increasing pressure on parties like the CDU to collaborate with it — which experts argue would only strengthen and legitimize the AfD’s far-right positions.

“It‘s a huge strategic mistake to help the AfD to have political impact,” Hillje said. “This will mobilize their supporters even more.”