March 4, 2024

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Protests in Germany bring the country to a standstill as the far right emerges as an opportunity to open up

Protests in Germany bring the country to a standstill as the far right emerges as an opportunity to open up

Berlin Germany

Farmers across Germany brought major roads to a standstill Protests In recent days, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's ruling coalition has become increasingly miserable amid anger over the cuts in support.

The protests are expected to reach new heights on Monday, with a crowd of more than 10,000 people and their tractors set to descend on the capital in a march organized in cooperation with the German shipping industry.

Multiple other protests are planned across the country, which come at the same time Official data It showed the German economy contracted last year for the first time since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, many are warning that The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. It exploits the chaos for its own political gain.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Farmers demonstrate against government plans to abolish tax subsidies for agricultural vehicles in Frankfurt on January 11.

In the shadow of Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate, a convoy of up to 500 tractors lined up each day last week in freezing pre-dawn temperatures.

To keep themselves warm, farmers lit fires and drank cups of hot tea and coffee.

Major roadblocks stretched across cities from east to west including Hamburg, Cologne, Bremen, Nuremberg and Munich – with up to 2,000 tractors registered for each protest. The pictures showed convoys of tractors and trucks, some carrying protest banners, blocking German roads since the early morning hours.

Outside the cities, protesters also targeted Germany's highways, severely disrupting traffic flow.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Protesting farmers eat breakfast among their tractors and trucks in Berlin on January 8.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Jarrar displays a banner bearing the logo of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which reads: “Germany needs new elections!”

Farmers are angry about the government's austerity plans that will reduce tax breaks for agriculture. Many warned that they would be fired.

Martin, a farmer from Rügen who was protesting in Berlin, spoke to the CNN team on the ground.

“I am here to protest against holding new elections in this country, because we are facing difficulties with our government. They are not listening to us, they are making regulations that harm every one of us, not just the farmers but everyone in this country. We believe that this is enough.”

“All the farmers standing here are worried about their livelihoods, about the farmers’ livelihoods… and this will not stop unless the government resigns and there are other solutions,” said Stephen, a farmer from West Pomerania who did not give his last name.

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The Schulz government sparked a backlash in December when it made unexpected changes to the draft 2024 budget, adjusting some of the subsidy cuts planned for January 4. However, farmers say this is not enough, and are demanding a complete rollback.

Germany Alternative for Germany party It has increasingly made its presence felt at this week's demonstrations.

Some of the tractors were decorated with AfD posters, reading “Our farmers first” and “Germany needs new elections.” Far-right supporters wearing AfD jackets were seen standing next to the vehicles.

On social media, the AfD's official Facebook page reposted photos from the protests and wrote messages of solidarity with the demonstrators.

“Supporting democratic protests like this against the insanity of traffic lights will continue to be a concern to our hearts,” one post read.

“We will stay with you on the road until the policy of tax breaks and support for our agriculture and the interests of our citizens is finally established. The traffic light will soon stand alone.

“Traffic light” is a reference to Schulz's coalition government – A reference to the colors of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party of which it is composed.

On his personal Facebook page, the controversial leader of the Alternative for Germany party in the eastern German state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, issued an appeal in which he said: “Citizens, we will see you on the roads!” The far-right politician has been classified as an extremist by the German Constitutional Protection Office.

Other photos shared on social media showed members of far-right groups including The Homeland and Third Way, as well as the AfD, attending a rally in Berlin. In Dresden, a video showed people carrying flags of the right-wing Free Saxony party clashing with police.

At the same time, Schulz failed to address the demonstrations that swept the country throughout the entire week. While attending a commissioning ceremony for Deutsche Bahn's new maintenance depot – Germany's main railway operator – in the city of Cottbus on Thursday, the chancellor was met by angry protesters.

He refused to engage with them and did not directly address the unrest in a speech at the event — a move that caused more anger among farmers who don't believe their voices are being heard by the federal government.

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For Johannes Kiess, a sociologist specializing in right-wing extremism at the University of Leipzig in eastern Germany, the AfD's involvement in the unrest was not surprising.

He points out that although the AfD's manifesto does not support the interests of farmers in Germany, the far-right party has a history of exploiting division.

“The AfD is trying to inflame the debate further in order to damage the image of democratic institutions and processes, and most importantly the current government,” Kiss told CNN.

“To this end, it attempts to increase polarization by using existing divisions such as rural versus urban.”

He continues: “The AfD used the eurozone crisis as a window of opportunity to get started in the first place. Far-right activists were literally waiting for such an opportunity, and with the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, they got a second crisis that helped them grow exponentially.”

“Immigration is known to be the bread and butter issue of the far right. Since then, the AfD has already used every crisis to fuel polarization, for example the pandemic, the war against Ukraine. Sometimes it works well, sometimes not.”

Jens Schlüter/AFP/Getty Images

Tractors pass Hartenfels Castle and cross the Elbe River in Thurgau, eastern Germany.

According to Kiss, the AfD has a clear market liberal position calling for the abolition of all types of subsidies, including those to farmers, which is in direct contradiction to what farmers are protesting for.

“They particularly oppose climate-friendly subsidies, which could help farmers transform their businesses to make them more environmentally and economically sustainable.

“In fact, the AfD, along with the CDU and the ruling coalition, voted in favor of canceling the subsidy in question.”

The AfD, which has recently enjoyed high-level opinion polls, hopes to make big gains in elections in three eastern states this year – Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg. Polling data released on Thursday showed the party comfortably ahead of its rivals in the three states.

While the regional elections do not directly affect federal policy, they could send a worrying signal to Schulz's SPD-led government ahead of next year's general election.

German ministers and the head of domestic intelligence have warned of how right-wing extremists may try to exploit the farmers' protests.

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Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who witnessed farmers' anger firsthand when a group of demonstrators tried to storm the ferry he was getting off last week, spoke of the “coup delusions” of the far right.

“Calls carrying coup fantasies are spreading. Habeck told reporters on Monday that extremist groups are being formed and nationalist symbols are being displayed openly.

“It has become clear that something has slipped in recent years, removing the boundaries of legitimate democratic protest.”

Kai Netfeld/Picture Alliance/DPA/AFP

A demonstrator marches in Berlin on Monday, carrying a German flag and a banana. Farmers gathered in the capital to protest planned subsidy cuts by the federal government, including agricultural diesel.

Stefan Kramer, head of the domestic intelligence agency in the eastern state of Thuringia, told CNN: “What we have certainly noticed is that extremists – primarily from the far right – have used the perfectly legitimate farmers' protests to either accompany these protests with similar calls on social media or to encourage their own members of the… The extreme right to walk with them or be on the sidelines.

“Above all, we saw that the AfD in Thuringia, which has been classified as far-right in Thuringia since 2021, also very specifically declared its solidarity with farmers and called for similar protest marches.”

Kramer added that the farmers' associations themselves distanced themselves from the far right. “They have made it very clear that they want nothing to do with them and that they are fighting for their own interests and interests and do not want to be co-opted by right-wing extremists.”

Likewise, Kiss said that although farmers in Germany tend to be conservative-leaning, the majority do not support the far right.

“As in all segments of the population, there is also support for the AfD among farmers. However, farmers are known to vote disproportionately for the conservative CDU/CSU [Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union].

“The current frustration with politics in general, not just the current government and subsidies to farmers, poses a risk that farmers will become more vulnerable to the far right as they feed into the anti-establishment theme,” he said.

Nadine Schmidt and Claudia Otto wrote from Berlin, while Sophie Tanno wrote and reported from London.