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Further demonstrations are expected in Germany after at least 300,000 people gathered around the country on Saturday to protest against the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
A public outcry was sparked when it emerged last week that several AfD politicians had met a prominent ethno-nationalist figure to discuss the potential for mass deportations of people of foreign origin.
The revelations, which have drawn comparison to policies enacted by the Nazi regime, have shaken the political establishment of Germany, where political consensus had long held that extremist rightwing ideologies would never again become popular enough to succeed at the ballot box.
But support for AfD has been surging, with national polls suggesting that nearly one in four Germans would vote for the party, putting it ahead of all three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition.
The AfD, which is Eurosceptic and strongly against immigration, has positioned itself as the party for people disappointed in Germany’s political establishment, calling for the protection of “western Christian culture” and traditional family values. Its rising popularity has coincided with a period of economic malaise for the country, fuelled by the loss of cheap Russian gas and falling global demand for cars, machines and chemicals produced by its large industry.
The party has complained that it is being subjected to a smear campaign by left-wing organisations and the media, especially following reports that several of its politicians had in November attended a meeting with the Austrian far-right radical Martin Sellner.
Protests are set to take place in Berlin, Munich and Cologne on Sunday, and in smaller towns and cities after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday.
In Frankfurt, where police said roughly 35,000 people had gathered on Saturday, some protesters carried signs that drew comparisons between the current political debate in Germany and the years before the Nazis won elections in 1933.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, has already designated three of the AfD’s regional branches as extremist and warned that the party had been infiltrated by far-right figures who wanted to overthrow the country’s democratic institutions.
The AfD leadership has sought to distance itself from the latest scandal. Party leader Alice Weidel has said that AfD does not support plans to forcibly deport people based on their ethnic origin and has since dismissed a close adviser, Roland Hartwig, who attended the meeting with Sellner.
German corporate veteran Joe Kaeser, who sits on the supervisory boards of Siemens Energy and Daimler Truck, this weekend called on business leaders to publicly oppose the AfD, telling Reuters that “I’m really worried about our democracy”.
“After 1933, there was a time when the economic and social elite could still have taken a position against the course of the Nazi regime,” the former Siemens chief executive said. “We must not repeat this mistake,” he added.
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