GÖRLITZ, Germany — Flanked by campaign posters promising a return to "normality," Alice Weidel, a lead election candidate for Germany's far-right party, railed against coronavirus lockdowns and what she said was "discrimination" against the unvaccinated.
The anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination-mandate message is a new rallying cry for the AfD, which became the country's third-largest political force when it won 13 percent of the vote in the country's last parliamentary elections, in 2017.
It did so by stoking a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in the wake of a migrant crisis in which Chancellor Merkel opened the nation's doors to more than a million refugees, many of whom had fled Syria's deadly civil war.
The AfD hasn’t abandoned its bread-and-butter issues of immigration and integration, which also feature heavily in election speeches. But after initially voicing support for coronavirus measures as the pandemic ravaged Europe, it has now put at the center of its campaign fighting what it describes as overbearing rules.
The party is trying to capitalize on Germany’s ecosystem of covid-skeptics and infuse it with a far-right framing of the crisis, said Hans Vorländer, a professor at the Technical University of Dresden. That ecosystem includes Querdenker, the covid-skeptic mass movement that encompasses a wide range of followers, from far-right radicals to anti-vaccine moms.
“It’s a free rider,” Vorländer said of the AfD. “The AfD realized that there was opposition to the corona restrictions in parts of the population and tried to make itself the leader of the loud and fierce anti-corona protests.”
Analysts say the inflammatory rhetoric risks violence, pointing to the fatal shooting of a young gas station worker in Germany’s west over the weekend, after she requested that a customer wear a mask.
So far the party’s strategy does not seem to be helping it in the polls. According to the latest from pollster INSA, the AfD is projected to win just 11 percent of the vote.
“It’s a lot, but it’s not a danger for democracy,” said Hajo Funke, a German academic who focuses on right-wing extremism. “They will remain completely isolated.” All the other parties have vowed not to cooperate with the AfD.
But the picture is different in Germany’s east, including Görlitz in the state of Saxony, where the AfD is the strongest political force and came close to voting in the party’s first mayor two years ago.
“We can count like this: one, two, AfD,” local Jan Kessens said as he pointed at random passersby from a park bench in Görlitz. “It’s every third person here in this city.”
The party is projected to win about 26 percent of the vote in Saxony, according to INSA’s polling. That figure puts it comfortably ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and just one point off its 2017 result. In Görlitz, the AfD won 33 percent four years ago.
Kessens attributes the AfD’s support here to low employment prospects in east Germany, which lag behind the national average.
“There’s no work, nothing to do, no discos, no parties. There’s nothing,” he said.
Nearby, a crowd gathered to watch Weidel and the party’s other lead candidate, Tino Chrupalla. A former painter and decorator, Chrupalla, 46, emerged as one of the AfD’s stars after unseating a Christian Democratic member of parliament in 2017.
Sylvia, 55, who had traveled from a nearby town to watch them, said it was unchecked immigration that had prompted her to switch support from Merkel’s Christian Democrats to the AfD in 2017.
“Then there was also the corona pandemic,” she said, declining to give her last name even as she described herself as “open” about her support for the party.
The AfD is the only party talking about violations of the Grundgesetz, she said, referring to Germany’s Basic Law, the closest thing it has to a constitution. Complaints about perceived violations of the rights it enshrines are fodder for the anti-lockdown movement.
Germany’s decision to do away with free coronavirus testing to put a financial burden on the unvaccinated is “unfair,” she said.
The covid-skeptic messaging plays well here: Saxony has the lowest vaccination rate of any of Germany’s 16 federal states.
But analysts say the country’s number of receptive ears are limited. And for Frank Klingebiel, the conservative mayor of Salzgitter in Lower Saxony, he’s more concerned that the AfD is the only party addressing issues of integration that he says are still of concern to his electorate.
His city of about 100,000 people had long hosted asylum seekers, including a sizable community of Syrians. But the abrupt influx of more than 6,000 people between 2015 and 2017 overwhelmed schools and social services, he said. And in 2017, support for the AfD surged, and it captured 13 percent of the vote in the city.
“In 2017, I was for the first time in my career worried about social peace in the city,” said Klingebiel. The mayor successfully lobbied German authorities to effectively ban new arrivals from settling in the city, and Salzgitter ultimately received additional funding.
Klingebiel said his goal is not to push Merkel’s conservative party closer to the far right. He is in favor of more integration support for asylum seekers and worries about the momentum the AfD is gaining in his city.
The mayor said that he is concerned Germany’s more-mainstream parties have moved on when it comes to immigration — but that many voters haven’t.
In Görlitz, Chrupalla warned the crowd that Germany is facing a new “wave” of immigration, trying to whip up fear that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could send refugees to Europe. Earlier, a former police superintendent had railed about crimes allegedly committed by “new Germans,” as he put it, or asylum seekers who were granted citizenship.
Petra Müller, 60, said the fact that no other parties are willing to talk about the problems of integrating migrants pushed her to the AfD for the first time with this election.
“I’m not against foreigners, but I don’t find it pleasant anymore,” she said, adding that avoiding the immigration discussion is “not honest and not good for the country.”
Ian Bateson in Görlitz and Florian Neuhof and Rick Noack in Berlin contributed to this report.