8 January 2015

Will the attack on Charlie Hebdo boost Pegida in Germany?

Yesterday’s horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris will no doubt have all sorts of knock-on repercussions, in all sort of places. One is Germany, which has recently experienced a wave of protests and counter-protests against the perceived Islamisation of the country. Organised by a loose coalition under the name of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), the marches are seen by many as a wider protest against immigration and record-high numbers of asylum seekers. Pegida has been condemned by prominent politicians and public figures including Chancellor Merkel who accused the group of “being full of prejudice and even hate.”

However, it is not given that such interventions will hurt Pediga – a recent Forsa poll for Stern found 29% of German felt that the protests were “justified,” although only 10% said they would consider voting for an ‘anti-Islam’ party.

AfD split on whether to embrace Pegida

The question is if any party will be brave enough to target this demographic. Currently, only the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland is flirting with the possibility. Several of its senior figures have praised Pegida; Vice-Chair Alexander Gauland said the Paris attack shows that “those who have ignored or ridiculed the concerns of many people about an impending threat from Islamism are punished by this bloody deed” while Frauke Petry, the party’s chair in Saxony (a focal point for the protests) today pledged “closer co-operation” with the group.

The more liberally-inclined leader Bernd Lucke and Vice-chair Hans-Olaf Henkel (the former President of the Federation of German Industries) have rejected an official collaboration with Pegida, with Lucke stating that “xenophobia is not acceptable in the AfD”. This issue has become part of a power struggle within the party, and reflects the wider row between economic liberals – who see the party as a natural successor to the moribund FDP – and ‘patriotic’ and social conservatives.

AfD as a barometer of public sentiment

Where AfD eventually lands is interesting for a range of reasons. As we’ve pointed out before, AfD is at risk becoming a catch-all populist party – over the past year it has adopted a relatively Putin-friendly position, and much of the party is strongly opposed to TTIP, the EU-US free trade agreement, moving it closer to parties like UKIP.

Should it also run on a platform of ‘concern’ about Islam and immigration, it will definitely have made the journey from the ‘professor party’ to an all-out, anti-everything party. This would be a major gamble as voters potentially sympathetic to its economic message could be turned off. However, if it does manage to gain an electoral boost by adopting such a position, it would suggest Germany – so far relatively spared from the big insurgent vs establishment clash haunting Europe – may be on the verge of a quite nasty immigration debate of its own.