Saturday Sep 16, 2017
OSTSEEBAD BINZ: Chancellor Angela Merkel may appear to be cruising to a victory in next week´s elections, but her campaign rallies across Germany have been plagued by rowdy protesters who jeer, boo and even throw tomatoes at her.
From the western university town of Heidelberg to the picturesque southern city of Rosenheim and the eastern heartland of Torgau, unhappy voters hold banners saying "Get lost" or "Merkel must go", laying bare their frustration.
Similarly, minded chants seek to drown out the chancellor´s speeches.
The unruly protests have jolted awake a snoozy campaign and tarnished Merkel´s image of invincibility, even though her conservative alliance is commanding a strong double-digit lead in opinion polls.
The demonstrations also come at a time when the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been gaining in the polls in the final stretch before the September 24 vote.
The disquiet has sparked questions about the source of the pent-up anger, particularly as the divisive issue of 2015´s mass refugee arrivals had seemingly faded as the influx eased last year.
"The rage is not fuelled only by Merkel´s refugee policy, but also by powerlessness, from the feeling of not being taken seriously by ´them up there´," the weekly magazine Spiegel said.
Timo Lochocki, a political analyst at the German Marshall Fund, said anger had been "long in the making" because the ruling coalition of Merkel´s "CDU and the Social Democratic Party do next to nothing to appease these voters".
"Over the last three to four years, the anti-establishment voters, plus disillusioned conservatives fed up with the eurozone rescue and migration deal, are shifting more and more to the right," he said -- and straight into the arms of the AfD.
Far from being a spontaneous outpouring of fury, the protests are highly organised.
Many of the so-called enraged citizens ("Wutbuerger" in German) arrive with AfD posters, reflecting the party´s success in tapping into outrage over the arrival of more than a million refugees to Germany since 2015.
Rene Springer, an adviser to AfD candidate Alexander Gauland, told Die Zeit weekly that it was "compulsory for AfD members to go to events of government politicians" and show their disapproval of the establishment´s programme.
But there is also a second motive -- to gain media attention.
"If the media is not reporting about us, then we should go and protest loudly, so that people will report about us," Springer said.
A handful armed with AfD posters turned up at Merkel´s rally Saturday at her constituency´s Baltic Sea resort of Binz, whistling during her speech, but they were too far away to make themselves heard.
Helmut Michel, who was holding an anti-Merkel poster, complained that the chancellor "gives the impression that she has everything in control but that is not true."
Citing the refugee crisis, Michel said it was too difficult to integrate so many newcomers as "life is already hard in Germany".
"There is exploitation of working people, there is education misery, problems with our own youths," said Michel, who refused to say who he is voting for but insisting that none of the established parties represent policies that he believes in.
AfD, whose leading politicians have come under fire for making racist comments, is expected to win seats in the German parliament for the first time.
With opinion polls putting its support at between eight and 12 percent, the group could become the country´s third-largest party.
Nico Siegel, who heads the Infratest Dimap polling institute, described the AfD as a "vacuum cleaner of the unsatisfied".
With mainstream parties all shunning the AfD, its supporters have been particularly vocal.
"The angry voters feel disempowered as they know that even if they voted for the other smaller parties, they won´t get rid of Merkel," said Lochocki, of the German Marshall Fund.
"This is basically why people flock to the AfD, and why they take to the streets because this is the only way to express their discontent."
Merkel has vowed to press on with her rallies, saying that "there is always a majority of people who are listening and who want to be democratically informed."
"It is important for me to visit not only comfortable places," she added.
"Every event is also an encouragement to those who stand up against hate."
Helmut Wessling, a retiree from Sassnitz, sided with Merkel and said the CDU will get his vote.
"Those who throw tomatoes act like they are in the kindergarten," he said, complaining that "they bring no solutions".