Support for the anti-immigration AfD has been eroding, but not in eastern Germany. where the right-wing populists remains a force.
The AfD has increasingly become a one-issue party articulating anger at Germany's welcoming stance toward refugees. So you'd think the party's support would be greatest in those areas of the country with the most refugees. You'd be wrong. Refugees are distributed to Germany's 16 federal states on the basis of income and population levels, so that the poorer and less populous east gets fewer asylum seekers than the West. Yet the AfD continues to do well in many places in the East.
"People are afraid – they don't want to be swamped with foreigners," says regional member of parliament Jürgen Strohschein. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the northeastern part of Germany has 1.6 million inhabitants but fewer refugees per capita than anywhere else in the country. In the most recent opinion survey, published on July 23, 20.5 percent of people asked said they supported the AfD. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is the only one of the eastern states where support for the AfD has increased since the start of 2017. So what's going on up there?
Ulrike Seemann-Katz, who chairs the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania Refugee Council, explained why an anti-immigrant party does so well in a region with so few migrants, and you'll get a blunt answer: fear.
"Psychologically, it's very easy to explain," Seemann-Katz told DW. "Human beings are afraid of what they don't know, and what people don't know here are refugees."
In rural regions in Germany's northeast, people have almost no personal experience of asylum seekers. What refugee homes there are exist as isolated islands with little support or contact with the outside world. Asylum seekers sent there tend to leave quickly for cities. Meanwhile, in a region where unemployment runs as high as three times the national average, many locals resent what they see as the preferential treatment given to refugees.
Her e-mails are full of "pure racism". One person complains of having to sweep the sidewalk in front of his house, while asylum seekers run around all day "with a smart phone in their left hand and a Red Bull in their right." Another simply writes: "Thanks a lot, Germany. We need new laws and more deportations."
Seemann-Katz has no doubt that the AfD's strength in her region is down to hostility to foreigners and especially asylum seekers. And she sees no solution for breaking the vicious circle of unfamiliarity that breeds fear and contempt.
"I don't think there's anything we can do," she says. "Refugees don't want to stay where they're not particularly welcome - that's only natural… If you walked with a group of refugees past the house (of an author of hateful emails), he'd quickly lower all the shutters."
When asked what motivates people to vote for the AfD, the mayor of Pasewalk, Sandra Nachtweih, answers with a list of resentments
"The fact that I feel disadvantaged by what we have here," Nachtweih, a left-wing independent, told DW. "That I'm not offered anything. That no one seems to care. That the refugees get preferential treatment. They get a new refrigerator and a new apartment while I don't. That's the frustration we see in relation to our efforts to help refugees."
The irony is that according to a report issued last year by the federal government's commissioner for eastern German affairs, Iris Gleicke, northeast of Germany needs to attract migrants to counter demographic shortcomings and succeed in future. Gleicke presented another study which found that eastern Germans were disproportionately prone to right-wing extremism and that the cause had more to do with mentality than with socio-economic factors.