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Rise of euro opponents alarms Merkel coalition

AFP-JIJI

A new political party in Germany that is opposed to the euro is emerging as an election-year wild card and a potential threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose coalition government is ruling with a narrow margin.

The small Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which wants to ditch the euro and bring back the country’s once-beloved deutsche mark, scored 3 percent in a poll published Tuesday, only two days after its first party congress.

Three percent may not sound like much, but mainstream parties and political analysts are taking the newcomers seriously because even small parties can trigger tectonic shifts in Germany’s coalition-based parliamentary system.

“If they already have 3 percent then they’re doing quite well,” said political scientist Gero Neugebauer of Free University in Berlin. “They have crossed a significant first hurdle. They have an organization, they have members, they’re at the center of attention and there is media hype. In times when coalitions win elections by very narrow margins, every party that can take away votes spells risks for the ruling Christian Democrats.”

Unlike many euroskeptic parties elsewhere in Europe, the AfD has so far stayed clear of the far-right fringe and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The early core of the party is made up of middle-class voters, academics and business figures. “The AfD has big potential,” the INSA polling institute’s chief, Hermann Binkert, was quoted as telling Bild newspaper, which commissioned the survey. “Two- thirds of Germans reject the multibillion (dollar) eurozone bailouts.”

Earlier polls suggested 1 in 4 Germans would consider backing the new party, which has tackled a long-standing taboo in generally pro-European Germany by calling for “an orderly dissolution of the eurozone.”

If Germany had a presidential system, Merkel — often dubbed Mutti (“mummy”) and consistently voted one of the country’s most popular politicians — would easily cruise to a third term in the Sept. 22 election.

Instead, her Christian Democrats rely on the support of the business-friendly Free Democrats, who are struggling to ensure they cross the crucial 5 percent election hurdle to re-enter Parliament.

Less than half a year before the vote, most polls give the Merkel government only a narrow lead over their opposition rivals — an alliance of the center-left Social Democrats and their preferred partners, the Greens party.

However, the AfD could rock that fragile arithmetic, whether it crosses the 5 percent hurdle or not, if growing support for the party eats into the traditional voter base of the Merkel coalition, say analysts.

That could well happen, given the makeup of the small party’s 1,500 founding members, said Neugebauer — 40 percent were disgruntled former Christian Democrat voters, and 25 percent had abandoned the Free Democrats.

Some observers think the new party could be a fad, pointing to the Internet-freedom and civil rights party the Pirates, who made a splash last year but have lost much support amid party infighting.

The threat the AfD poses to the government “should neither be dramatized nor played down,” said a senior deputy for the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Bosbach.

He stressed that in a January election in the northern state of Lower Saxony, “a few thousand votes” swung the result against Merkel’s party.

“I wouldn’t call them a danger, but a challenge for the party,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves why voters are abandoning us for the AfD. It is a question we should think about intently.”

Neugebauer does not even rule out the ever-pragmatic Merkel eventually forming an alliance with the new party, provided it grows stronger, stays moderate and is ready for compromise.

“If they get more than 5 percent, refrain from Merkel-bashing, and avoid slipping into the rightwing populist gutter, then the Christian Democrats could well adopt the tactic of saying, ‘Well, if the Free Democrats are not available but the Alternative for Germany is, why not cooperate?’ “