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Far-Right German Party Is Poised to Break Postwar Taboo

Far-right parties have held seats in state legislatures and municipal councils in Germany for decades. But since the federal Parliament of West Germany was established in 1949 after the Nazi defeat in World War II, no party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union has surpassed the 5 percent threshold necessary to win seats there.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the Christian Democrats, and her main rival, Martin Schulz, of the Social Democrats, during their televised debate this month.

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John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Several polls estimate that the AfD, which has morphed from an anti-euro currency party to one opposed to immigration, will win 10 percent to even 15 percent of the vote.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats — who vote as a bloc with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union — remain on track to emerge as the strongest party, with about 36 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats — whose leader, Martin Schulz, has struggled to differentiate himself from Ms. Merkel after his party has ruled together with hers for the last four years — are estimated to win about 22 percent.

Entrance into Parliament would also strengthen the AfD by making it eligible for public financing and increasing its visibility. Its members would serve on parliamentary committees and would force more established political parties to respond more clearly on issues like immigration and redefining the national identity.

“The AfD has already sharply changed the discourse, as can be seen from the election campaign,” said Niko Switek, a professor at the NRW School of Governance at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “German politics have become polarized again.”

Yes and no. The main German parties are solidly pro-European and the campaign has actually been criticized as too dull, leaving room for smaller, more extreme parties, like the AfD and the Left party, the inheritor of the East German Communist Party, to make inroads.

Gerd Feichtinger, a sanitation technician who was born in the former East Germany, said that after decades of supporting the chancellor’s conservatives, the AfD was getting his vote.

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Alexander Gauland, center, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany Party, arriving at an election campaign event in eastern Germany on Sept. 11.

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Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I want to finally see a real opposition in Parliament,” he said in a phone interview from his home near the former West German capital of Bonn. “Whatever happens, Ms. Merkel has to go. I am going to do what I can to make that happen.”

At the same time, representation for the AfD in parliament, given Germany’s complicated system of proportional representation, would acknowledge democratic reality and give 10 percent or more of the Germans, who like Mr. Feichtinger feel isolated and alienated, a voice in the national political debate.

The AfD remains strongest in the formerly Communist east and has dealt the Christian Democrats humiliating election defeats in state elections there. But it has failed to do as well in the west, although it entered the regional Parliament of the most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, for the first time in May.

As campaigning began in the summer, the immigration issue had largely slipped out of the collective consciousness, the party’s support dipped into the single digits from the near 20 percent it enjoyed just after the arrival of nearly a million refugees in 2015.

But after the only televised debate between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz focused heavily on the immigration issue — revealing the similarities in their position — the AfD appeared to gain again, said one pollster, Nico Siegel, of Infratest dimap.

“There was hardly any difference in their positions,” Mr. Siegel said.

Four smaller parties, up from the current two, are expected to make it into Parliament: the AfD; the liberal Free Democrats, who are running almost neck-and-neck for third place; the Greens; and the Left party. But a significant number of voters say that they remain undecided.

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Ms. Merkel could face a tough choice between two options for forming a government, particularly if the AfD comes in third. One would be trying to revive the “grand coalition” of the past four years with the Social Democrats, many of whom think they would be better off with a time in opposition.

Her preference would appear to be a coalition with the Free Democrats — who are poised to re-enter Parliament after failing to secure enough support in 2013 — and, if they fail to win enough seats to secure a majority together, the Greens.

But that would lead to extremely complicated coalition negotiations, which could take weeks, if not months, to resolve.

If AfD were to become the leader of the opposition, that would grant it the right to respond to the chancellor after she addresses Parliament and would give the far-right party more exposure.

Concern is already building about how the far right’s greater prominence would affect the largely respectful demeanor of debate that has been a cornerstone of German politics for decades.

The president of the Parliament, Norbert Lammert, who has announced his retirement after 12 years in that position, earned resounding applause this month when he urged lawmakers to uphold the “consensus of democrats over the competition between parties that fanatics and fundamentalists consider to be more important.”

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Recent weeks have been marked by an increasingly aggressive tone in the AfD’s campaign strategy, notably in an online ad accusing Ms. Merkel of breaking her oath of office by admitting so many refugees, and in protests by demonstrators who have disrupted the chancellor’s rallies by blowing whistles and shouting, “Get lost!”

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leaders, held two separate news conferences in the final weeks of campaigning, highlighting different elements of the party’s stance on immigration in an apparent effort to remind voters of the issue.

Mr. Gauland, one of the founders of the party four years ago, has also taken on a more extreme, nationalist tone. He stood by his call last month for Ms. Merkel’s integration minister to be “disposed of” in Anatolia, the home of her grandparents, even when the chancellor pointedly called the remarks racist.

He has also taken on the country’s postwar culture of atonement and remembrance of that period, calling for Germans to “take pride in the performance of German soldiers in two world wars.”

Such extreme statements seem to be mobilizing party loyalists, said Bernhard Pörksen, a media professor at the University of Tübingen.

“The success of the AfD is in its strategy of choosing aggressive polarization,” he said, “while the other parties are more careful, more weighed; and they are notable to make the differences between them clear.”

While the party seems to have energized its adherents, its critics have also been galvanized. Some Germans look on the prospect of AfD in Parliament with trepidation.

“I think about it a lot and it scares me,” said Markus Pesch, 41, who studies ecotourism in Berlin. “I’m sure they’ll get more than 10 percent, and will probably beat out the Greens and the Left,” he said. “I’m worried that they get to help make political decisions and that they’ll have a real influence.”

Others are more sanguine. “I’m not really worried about the rise of the AfD. Not everyone who is voting for them are actually right wing,” said Christian Sekula, 54, a goods trader from Berlin. “They’re just not happy, and they haven’t found what they are looking for with the current parties.”

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