In German Rust Belt, Anti-Merkel Populists Campaign for Her Exit

  • Urban decay spurs election-year rebuke for mainstream parties
  • First broad-based far-right party poised to enter parliament

Walking through Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, there’s little sign it once was a hub for European coal and steel production.

The lights have mostly gone out on the “City of 1,000 Fires,” which stood like few others for Germany’s economic rebirth from the ashes of World War II. In their place, a new political movement, the Alternative for Germany, is taking root and promising to put Germans first as it seeks to become the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since the war.

Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, has been draining votes from established parties since a record influx of 1 million refugees in 2015 ignited its support. Those backers are now poised to deliver a rebuke to Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Sept. 24 election, splintering the vote and limiting her options to govern if she wins a fourth term.

Friedhelm Rikowski

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

“In Gelsenkirchen, you can sense that Germans no longer feel at home in their own country,” says Friedhelm Rikowski, who ditched Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union after 31 years to join the AfD. Touring a street of gritty apartment buildings in a heavily immigrant part of the city, he says “too many people were allowed in unchecked.”

It’s on the streets of towns like Gelsenkirchen that the AfD challenge mirrors the populist backlash that fueled the U.K.’s Brexit vote, lifted Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and roiled the French election. While it’s not vying for government -- no other party will work with it -- the AfD has already won seats in state legislatures across the country; polls now suggest it will take enough votes in the federal election to make it harder for the CDU or the Social Democratic Party to get the numbers to form a coalition.

“The AfD has struck a chord with many Germans across party affiliations” with its anti-immigration agenda, said Nils Diederich, political science professor emeritus at Berlin’s Free University. “Their feeling is ‘Finally there’s a party that says exactly what I always felt but couldn’t really express in my old party.”’

Gelsenkirchen, a shrunken city of 260,000 where a BP Plc refinery shares the skyline with a giant slag heap, is fertile ground for nativist politics. Unemployment is 14.1 percent, more than double the national average, and foreign-born residents are 17 percent of the population, compared with 10.5 percent nationwide. Home burglaries reached a record in 2015, with “non-Germans” accounting for 40 percent of suspects.

A pedestrian passes shuttered residential property in Gelsenkirchen.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

In a regional election in May in North Rhine-Westphalia state, the AfD won its biggest voter share in Gelsenkirchen. Nationally, support ranges as high as 11 percent in polls, making it a contender for third place behind Merkel’s bloc and the Social Democrats.

Rikowski, 61, exemplifies how the AfD has won support among middle-class Germans who see the country’s identity under threat, from economists and government workers to craftsmen. A civil servant who spent a decade on Gelsenkirchen’s city council, Rikowski talks about the rising crime he’s witnessed as a juror and a burglary victim. He blames Merkel for shifting the CDU toward a liberal, globalist agenda and losing control over the refugee influx.

The fallout isn’t confined to Merkel’s party, however. The Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner during the refugee crisis, are also feeling the heat from an AfD campaign that features calls for Germany to leave the euro area, end sanctions on Russia, ban full-body veils for women and encouraging Germans to have babies.

‘Simple Answers’

“SPD voters are looking for simple answers and the AfD provides them,” said Ingrid Arndt-Brauer, a national lawmaker for the Social Democrats from the state. In the Ruhr region, that means playing to working-class nostalgia for the coal industry’s heyday. “So people think, ‘Ah, they understand us,’ when in fact it’s just a trick.”

Former coal miner Guido Reil, 47, says he handed in his SPD membership last year out of disgust at local officials who placed a refugee shelter in his part of town in Essen, an industrial city next to Gelsenkirchen. A Social Democrat since his early 20s, Reil says his city can’t afford the 35 million-euro ($42 million) expense. He’s running for a seat in the national parliament on the AfD ticket.

Guido Reil outside the closed-down pub in which he quit the SPD

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

“I’ve been in local politics for 16 years and I always had to tell people that we’re broke,” says Reil. “We’ve stripped them of everything and now we suddenly have unlimited money, now we’re rich?”

The Social Democrats, who ran the state for most of its 71-year history, aren’t the “party of ordinary people” anymore, he says.

For all the electoral gains, some AfD party leaders say the party has to work on improving its image, including among women voters.

Its standing in mainstream media isn’t helped by leaders such as Alexander Gauland, a former CDU official who said Merkel’s chief refugee-policy aide, a German-born woman of Turkish descent, should be “dumped” in Turkey. Merkel called the remark racist.

Infighting over how far the party should go to attract fringe voters also seems to have dented its poll numbers. To converts like Rikowski, the AfD needs to focus on expanding its mainstream appeal for the next election cycle.

“We’re a cross section of the population,” he says.

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