PFORZHEIM, Germany (AP) — A nationalist party that wants Germany to close its borders to migrants, leave Europe’s common currency and end sanctions against Russia is predicted to enter Parliament for the first time this month, propelled by voters’ anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let over a million refugees into the country since 2015.
Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is forecast to take between 8 and 11 percent of the vote on September 24, giving it dozens of lawmakers in the national Parliament. Some polls even project that it could even come third behind Merkel’s party and the center-left Social Democrats.
If the predictions are correct, it would be the first time in 60 years that a party to the right of Merkel’s conservative Union bloc has attracted enough votes to enter the Bundestag.
“It’s quite an achievement for a right-wing party to clear the 5% minimum threshold,” said Gideon Botsch, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam near Berlin.
AfD’s poll numbers are all the more remarkable because the party has become increasingly extreme since its founding in 2013, he said.
“German voters haven’t wanted to vote for a right-wing party in recent decades,” Botsch said. “Germany’s Nazi history is obviously one of the reasons for that.”
At an election rally last week in the southwestern city of Pforzheim, the mostly male, middle-aged audience gave a standing ovation to party co-leader Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old former civil servant who sparked controversy last year by saying that Germans don’t want to live next to a black football player.
Gauland, a former member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, made headlines again recently for suggesting that the government’s integration czar should be “disposed of” in Turkey, where her family emigrated from before she was born.
In Pforzheim, Gauland touched on a subject the party’s supporters are particularly anxious about: the influx of migrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Only if we defend Europe against a new Islamic invasion,” he told the crowd, “do we have a chance to remain a majority in this country and survive.”
Gauland’s anti-Islam comments fell on fertile ground in Pforzheim, at the northern tip of Germany’s Black Forest. His party achieved a surprise victory there in last year’s regional election. It now has seats in 13 state assemblies and the European Parliament.
Observers say AfD benefited from Pforzheim’s large population of so-called Russlanddeutsche — ethnic Germans who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and hold more conservative views than the general population.
One such voter, Waldemar Meister, said he thinks AfD is the only party that listens to ordinary people’s concerns.
“We’re lied to, we’re deceived (by the other parties),” he said.
According to Timo Lochocki, a Berlin-based researcher at the German Marshall Fund think tank, AfD’s success is partly due to the disillusionment voters feel with Germany’s established political parties — a development that mirrors Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the rise of US President Donald Trump, whose election AfD enthusiastically endorsed.
Nico Siegel, head of the infratest dimap polling agency, said more than half of people who vote for AfD say they did so out of dissatisfaction with other parties, drawing votes from all the others.
“The AfD is like a vacuum cleaner for those unsatisfied with the other parties,” he said.
Like populist politicians elsewhere, AfD portrays itself as the lone voice of the people and all others, from mainstream politicians to journalists, as enemies or even traitors. It also enjoys good ties with Moscow.
The party has created a formidable social media machine with which to stoke outrage against migrants, Merkel and the media. It has by far the highest number of Facebook followers of all German political parties, and members avidly use Twitter to share news about crimes if they are committed by migrants.
Although the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Germany has dropped sharply since 2015, the issue remains at the top of the political agenda partly due to the absence of other major problems in the country, Lochocki said.
Germany’s unemployment is low, wages are rising and Merkel has absorbed most of her left-wing rivals’ political positions — from phasing out nuclear power to allowing same-sex marriage and easing immigration rules.
“Merkel has lost credibility among conservatives,” said Bernd Lucke, one of the founders of AfD who left the party in 2015 after losing a leadership battle. Lucke said many German conservatives are unsure who they’ll back this time round.
Recent opinion polls show almost half of German voters are still undecided.
Some in AfD fear the party’s unwillingness to clamp down on extreme nationalist rhetoric and veiled anti-Semitism could end up costing it precious votes.
“Germans would rather vote for nuclear war than for Nazis,” AfD’s regional head in North Rhine-Westphalia state, Marcus Pretzell, told The Associated Press in May.
This week, the party closed ranks around co-leader Alice Weidel following media reports that she had expressed racist views in a private email four years ago. Senior AfD figures dismissed the report in the weekly Welt am Sonntag, which quoted from an email Weidel allegedly sent to an acquaintance in which she claimed the government was trying to cause “civil war” by systematically flooding German cities with Arab and Roma migrants.
Botsch, the political scientist, said it’s conceivable that AfD might again fail at the last hurdle — like it did in 2013, when it received 4.7% of the vote.
On the other hand, if the party comes third and Merkel’s Union bloc continues its grand coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, AfD could end up being the biggest opposition party, with special privileges in Parliament.
“That will put AfD in a very strong position, but a lot depends on whether it can behave professionally,” Botsch said.