The German Islamophobic movement PEGIDA staged its biggest rally in months yesterday (19 October), reinvigorated on its first anniversary by anger at the government’s decision to take in nearly a million refugees from the Middle East.
PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, almost fizzled out earlier this year when its leader resigned after a photo was published of him posing as Hitler.
But it has swelled again as Germany implements Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept a tide of largely Muslim Arab refugees, as she argues that Germany can not only cope but, with its ageing population, will benefit in the long term.
Police declined to estimate the number of protesters but media put it at 15-20,000, somewhat below a peak of around 25,000 in January. Around 14,000 counter-demonstrators urged people to welcome refugees.
PEGIDA supporters waved the national flag and carried posters bearing slogans such as “Hell comes with fake refugees” and “Every people should have its country, not every people a piece of Germany.”
Gathering outside Dresden’s historic opera house, the Semperoper, PEGIDA supporters chanted “Deport! Deport!” and “Merkel must go!”.
“We’re just normal people who are scared of what’s coming,” said 37-year-old Patrick, a car mechanic. “As a German citizen who pays taxes, you feel like you’re being taken for a ride.”
Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA’s former leader, told the rally: “Politicians attack and defame us and the lowest tricks are used to keep our mouths shut. We are threatened with death, there are attacks on our vehicles and houses and we are dragged through the mud, but we are still here … And we will triumph!”
The counter-demonstrators marched through the town chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!”
Simone Peter, leader of the Greens party and one of the counter-demonstrators, told Reuters: “We’re for diversity and an open, colourful society, not hatred and violence … the people who incite with right-wing slogans add fuel to the fire of the arsonists.”
PEGIDA has more than 172,000 ‘Likes’ on its Facebook page and wants Germany to stop taking asylum seekers immediately.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said on Sunday that PEGIDA’s organisers were “hard right-wing extremists” and everyone who attended their demonstrations “should know that they are running after rat catchers”.
Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University, said PEGIDA and the right-wing Alternative for Germany party were being allowed by the government to define how the refugee crisis was perceived by many people.
“What seems to be worrying a lot of people now is that people from different cultures are coming here, and they don’t know how they will integrate, and that’s quite a diffuse fear, and that’s now being exploited by some political forces.”
Merkel under fire
Berlin’s leftist and Green opposition accused Merkel of meddling in a Turkish election campaign while her conservative Bavarian allies warned against any attempt to revive Ankara’s stalled EU membership bid.
Merkel travelled to Istanbul on Sunday and met President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu in what some German media described as a desperate attempt to stem the tide of mostly Syrian refugees that has hit her popularity at home.
Top-selling German newspaper Bild plastered a large picture of Merkel and Erdo?an sitting on golden thrones and laughing with each other, two weeks before Turkey holds a parliamentary election. The headline read: “Who gains most from the chancellor’s Turkey trip: Merkel or Erdo?an?”
A longtime opponent of Turkish EU membership and critic of Erdo?an’s crackdown on opponents and the media, Merkel now sees Turkey as a crucial partner in reducing the number of refugees reaching Europe.
Merkel told a news conference with Davuto?lu that stalled talks between Ankara and Brussels should be injected with new dynamism. She also signalled her readiness to loosen visa requirements for Turkish citizens, grant Turkey so-called “safe country” status in the asylum process and explore allowing Turkish leaders to attend EU summits.
None of these steps was under consideration in Berlin before the refugee crisis deepened. The willingness to offer safe-country status and accelerate accession talks represent outright policy reversals, although German officials played that down.
“How high is the price for Turkish cooperation?” conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked in an critical editorial.
Conservative allies and left-wing opposition parties alike questioned her concessions, underscoring her dilemma.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, a moderate within the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), hit out at Merkel’s readiness to revive Turkey’s EU bid, long a taboo for German conservatives.
“We shouldn’t make too many concessions to Turkey: joining the EU is not on the agenda,” Hasselfeldt told daily Die Welt.
Cem Oezdemir, co-leader of the Greens, and himself the son of Turkish immigrants, said: “Erdo?an is not the solution to the problem. Rather it the policies that he stands for that are behind this migration wave.”
Other politicians criticised Merkel for not taking the time, so close to a 1 November general election, to meet with Turkish opposition parties, calling her visit a campaign coup for Erdo?an’s ruling AKP party.
German officials said that Merkel’s tight schedule had made a meeting with opposition parties difficult to arrange.
A new poll from INSA on Monday showed support for the chancellor’s conservative bloc at a 2-1/2 year low of 37% and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which advocated a hard line on immigration, up at a seven-month high of 7.5%.
Germany is a favoured destination for refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa and the government expects 800,000 to a million new arrivals this year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would not turn down refugees and argues that Germany can not only cope with them, but with its ageing population, it would benefit in the long term.
But many Germans feel the country cannot cope with the record influx. As many German municipalities struggle to house and support the wave of migrants, criticism of Merkel's policy has grown, her ratings have slipped, and there have been arson attacks on refugee centres.