A far-right party just made big gains in eastern Germany days after reports one of its leaders marched with neo-Nazis in 2007
- Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party made big gains in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony in elections Sunday, while Chancellor Angela Merkel's party and its coalition partner just clung on to diminishing pluralities.
- The AfD's surge cements its strength in the formerly communist east, where anti-immigrant sentiment, economic inequality, and a historical rift between East and West have thrown German politics into turmoil.
- This comes just days after the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that one of the party's leaders, the Brandenburg politician Andreas Kalbitz, participated in a neo-Nazi march in Greece in 2007.
- Kalbitz dismissed the reports and called critics' claims that the AfD was an extremist party "hysterical."
- The AfD rose to political prominence in 2017 on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment following Merkel's decision to welcome over a million refugees. It has since made xenophobic nationalism its central message.
- Notably, the AfD did remarkably well among young voters, winning a plurality of 18- to 30-year-olds in Saxony and the second-most votes in that age group in Brandenburg.
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DRESDEN, Germany - Germany's leading far-right populist party made significant gains in elections in two eastern states on Sunday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel's party and her governing partners suffered losses but kept hold of power.
The surge of the Alternative for Germany party cements its power in the formerly communist east, where anti-immigrant sentiment, economic inequality, and a historical rift between East and West have thrown German politics into turmoil over the past several years.
AfD's electoral gains come just days after the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that one of the party's leaders, the Brandenburg politician Andreas Kalbitz, participated in a neo-Nazi march in Athens, Greece, in 2007.
Kalbitz, who previously acknowledged attending a neo-Nazi camp in 2007, reportedly joined members of Germany's extremist National Democratic Party in the Greek march. A German police report noted that the NPD marchers hung a swastika flag from the balcony of a hotel.
Last week, the German broadcaster RBB reported that Kalbitz, 46, also attended a neo-Nazi youth-movement camp in 1993.
Kalbitz dismissed the reports and called critics' claims that the AfD was an extremist party "hysterical."
"The AfD is a democratic party and clearly distances itself - as I do - from right-wing extremism," he said, according to Die Welt.
"Everything else is the almost hysterical attempt of the political competition to cover up material deficits with an artificial enemy image."
The AfD rose to political power in 2017 on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment following Merkel's decision to welcome over a million refugees into the country in 2015. Serving as the main opposition in the federal parliament, the AfD has since made xenophobic nationalism its central message.
The party doubled its share of the vote in Brandenburg on Sunday - jumping from 12% in the 2014 elections to 24%, and nearly tripled its support in Saxony - climbing to 28% of the vote from 10% amid a surge in voter turnout.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party maintained its position as the most popular party in Saxony but sank nearly 7 points from the 2014 elections.
The party lost nearly 8 points in Brandenburg, the largely rural state that surrounds the German capital, Berlin. And the center-left Social Democrats eked out a plurality in Brandenburg with 26% of the vote - 4 points ahead of the AfD.
Notably, the AfD did remarkably well among young voters.
It beat out its competitors among voters under 30 in Saxony and came in second - just a point behind the Green party - among 18- to 30-year-olds in Brandenburg. The Green party came in second in Saxony.
The under-30 vote illustrated the broader movement of German voters away from the traditional centrist parties to the insurgent parties on the left and right.
Kalbitz and other AfD leaders celebrated the party's gains Sunday night.
"Many said at the end of the election campaign, they are happy when this is over," Kalbitz told reporters. "Nothing is over. Now it really starts. We have done a good job. We have every reason to celebrate tonight.
"We will form a very strong opposition."
Merkel's party regroups
The CDU state premier of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, expressed satisfaction with the night's results as his supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief at the party's election-night celebration on the roof of the Saxony parliament building on Sunday evening.
Still, several CDU supporters Insider spoke with at the event were alarmed at how well the AfD did in both states.
"It's a good day, but there's a lot of work to do," Carsten Schröter, who works for the Saxony government, told Insider.
He added that the results were evidence of a deepening cultural and economic divide between Germany's east and west. "When I speak with my friends and people I know in West Germany, they often don't get the problems," he said.
Jan Jassner, the general manager of the German underwear company Bruno Banani, said Sunday's election bought the CDU time.
He put the surge in AfD support in the east of Germany down to Merkel's immigration policy, rather than local issues, and said the party should work to convince voters that it still held conservative positions on issues like national security.
Jana Gratias, who works for a CDU member of parliament representing the eastern city of Chemnitz, said she was surprised by the AfD's surge.
Gratias argued that the party's supporters were motivated by exaggerated news reports and political rhetoric concerning immigration. She defended Merkel's decision to welcome the wave of migrants and refugees in 2015 as a necessary move for humanitarian reasons.
"In Saxony there is no problem - there aren't many immigrants," she said. "They just see it and hear it in the media and everybody's pushing it."
Eliza Relman is reporting from Germany on an Arthur F. Burns fellowship through the International Center for Journalists.
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