Geopolitics

AfD Watershed, 5 Reasons For The Far Right Rising In Germany

Though Angela Merkel has secured a fourth term with Sunday's election, the populist party Alternative for Germany will be the first far-right party since 1961 to enter parliament.

AfD supporters react to election results in Berlin on Sept. 24
AfD supporters react to election results in Berlin on Sept. 24
Benedikt Peters

MUNICH — The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party garnered some 13% of the vote in Sunday's national parliamentary election. Though the numbers could change slightly, the message is clear: AfD, a party founded only in 2013, is sending several dozen deputies to the Bundestag. For modern German politics, this is a watershed moment. For the first time since the 1961 ouster of the post-War German Party, a far-right party will once again sit in parliament. Germany and the rest of the world are asking what contributed to the AfD's success. Here are five key factors:

1. FEAR

In early September 2015, the German federal government decided to allow refugees, who were then trapped in Hungary, to journey on to Germany. In the months that followed, some 890,000 people applied for asylum. The AfD sharply criticized this new immigration policy, successfully positioning themselves as the voice of outrage. How closely linked the rise of the AfD is to the question of refugees is reflected in polling data: For a long time before September 2015, far-right parties claimed 2%-6% of the electorate. But since then, they have experienced a steep rise in popularity, achieving up to 16% nationwide. Time and again, the AfD has also used terror attacks committed by asylum applicants to gain support, holding Chancellor Angela Merkel responsible for these attacks.

2. POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Shortly after she became a candidate for the AfD in the national election, Alice Weidel said at the party's convention in Cologne, "As democrats and patriots, we will not keep quiet. "Political correctness' belongs to the scrap heap of history." In her remark lies another reason for the AfD's success. The party included criticism of "political correctness' (albeit an exaggerated phenomenon) in their platform. At campaign rallies, AfD officials often mocked the use of gender-sensitive language and criticized academic fields that focus on gender roles. They demanded that Germans once again be able to articulate national pride openly — as if this were forbidden beforehand. Alongside the backlash against political correctness is a shared defense of the traditional family and criticism of same-sex marriage.

A lightning bolt strikes Berlin's Bundestag on the Sept. 25 front page of German daily Die Tageszeitung.

3. DIGITAL EDGE

No political party in German is as active on the Internet as the AfD. Since its founding in 2013, the party's strategy has relied heavily on Facebook to spread its message. The platform is a "quicker, more direct, and more inexpensive gateway to people," AfD spokesman Christian Luth recently told Süddeutsche Zeitung. The party sharpened its online methods during the parliamentary campaign. In the weeks leading up to the election, they hired the American agency Harris Media, known for its digital campaigning skills, and carried out "negative campaigning," which had been frowned up in Germany in the past. A study by Oxford University found that the AfD was by far the most active German political party on Twitter.

4. PLAYING THE VICTIM

Some view the AfD as a threat to democracy. But the party's strategists have managed to turn this around, stylizing the AfD as a victim of an establishment determined to prevent the party's members from exercising their democratic rights. Thus, for example, Alice Weidel walked out of a televised debate and later declared that the moderator had mistreated her.

And sometimes politicians, journalists and others unwittingly helped the AfD, like when the minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, refused to participate in a televised debate alongside the AfD candidate before the 2016 state elections and the broadcaster rescinded the candidate's invitation. Denying the AfD accommodation for its events have had a similar effect, as have demonstrators' attempts to blockade such events.

5. CALCULATED PROVOCATION

Again and again, the AfD has drawn attention to itself by breaking rhetorical taboos. Party chairwoman Frauke Petry called for the use of firearms against refugees along the border in case of emergency. Her deputy Beatrix von Storch wrote that women and children should be allowed to bear arms. Petry's life partner and fellow party member Marcus Pretzell said after the attack at the Berlin Christmas market last year that the individuals who had died there were "Merkel's dead." And another party member, Börn Höcke, called the National Holocaust Memorial the "Monument of Shame." These remarks are calculated, and a leaked internal strategy report shows that they have won the party significant media attention. Many outlets, including Süddeutsche Zeitung, report whenever an AfD politician breaks a taboo, ultimately helping the party remain part of the national conversation.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ