Protests sweep Germany as far right sees opening CNN

Protests sweep Germany as far-right sees opening – CNN

Berlin, Germany CNN —

Farmers across Germany have shut down key roads in protests in recent days, plunging Chancellor Olaf Scholz's ruling coalition into misery amid anger over subsidy cuts.

Protests are expected to reach new heights on Monday, when a crowd of over 10,000 people and their tractors will descend on the capital in a rally organized jointly with Germany's freight transport industry.

Several more protests are planned across the country, taking place as official data shows that Germany's economy contracted last year for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now many are warning that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is exploiting the chaos for its own political advantage.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

On January 11th, farmers demonstrate in Frankfurt against the government's plans to abolish tax subsidies for agricultural vehicles.

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

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

Large road blockades stretched across cities from east to west, including Hamburg, Cologne, Bremen, Nuremberg and Munich – with up to 2,000 tractors registered at each protest. Images showed convoys of tractors and trucks, some with protest banners, blocking German roads from the early hours of the morning.

Outside the cities, the fast-moving highways in Germany were also targeted by demonstrators, significantly affecting traffic flow.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Protesting farmers have breakfast between their tractors and trucks in Berlin on January 8th.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A banner with the AfD logo hangs on a tractor: “Germany needs new elections!”

Farmers are outraged by the government's austerity plans that would cut tax breaks for agriculture. Many have warned they will be forced out of business.

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

“I am here to protest for a new election in this country because we are in trouble with our government. They don't hear us, they make regulations that hurt every one of us, not just farmers, but everyone in this country. And we think enough is enough.”

Steven, a farmer from Western Pomerania who did not give his last name, said: “All the farmers standing here are worried about their existence, about the existence of farmers… This will only stop when the government resigns and there are other solutions .”

The Scholz government sparked a backlash in December when it made unexpected changes to a draft budget for 2024 and on January 4 amended some of the planned subsidy cuts. However, this does not go far enough for farmers and calls for a complete reversal.

The AfD was increasingly present at this week's demonstrations.

Some tractors have AfD posters reading “Our farmers first” and “Germany needs new elections.” In addition to the vehicles, right-wing extremist supporters wearing AfD vests could also be seen.

On social media, the AfD's official Facebook page again posted pictures of the protests and wrote messages of solidarity with the demonstrators.

“Supporting democratic protests like this one against the traffic light madness will continue to be a matter close to our hearts,” says one post.

“We will stay on the path with you so that a policy for tax relief, for supporting our agriculture and for the interests of our own citizens is finally created.” The traffic light will soon stand all alone.”

The “traffic light” is a reference to Scholz’s coalition government – ​​a reference to the colors of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens that make up it.

On his personal Facebook page, the controversial Thuringian AfD leader Björn Höcke called for: “Dear fellow citizens, see you on the streets!” The right-wing extremist politician is classified as an extremist by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Other images shared on social media showed members of right-wing extremist groups such as “Heimat” and “Third Way” as well as the AfD at a rally in Berlin. In Dresden, a video showed people with flags of the right-wing Free Saxony party clashing with the police.

Meanwhile, Scholz failed to address the nationwide demonstrations throughout the week. When the Chancellor attended the ceremonial commissioning of a new maintenance facility for Deutsche Bahn – Germany's largest rail operator – in the city of Cottbus on Thursday, she was met with angry demonstrators.

He refused to engage with them and did not directly address the unrest in a speech he gave at the event – a move that has resonated with farmers who do not believe their voice is being heard by the federal government , has caused further outrage.

For Johannes Kiess, a sociologist specializing in right-wing extremism at the University of Leipzig in East Germany, the AfD's involvement in the unrest is no surprise.

He points out that while the AfD's election program does not support the interests of German farmers, the far-right party has repeatedly exploited divisions in the past.

“The AfD is trying to further fuel the debate in order to damage the image of democratic institutions and processes and, above all, the current government,” Kiess told CNN.

“To this end, attempts are being made to increase polarization by exploiting existing divisions such as rural versus urban.”

He continues: “The AfD used the crisis in the Eurozone as an opportunity to get off the ground. Far right activists were literally waiting for such an opportunity and got a second crisis with the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, which helped them achieve significant growth.

“Migration is considered the bread and butter issue of the extreme right. Since then, the AfD has actually used every crisis to fuel polarization, such as the pandemic and the war against Ukraine. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images

Tractors drive past Hartenfels Castle and cross the Elbe in Torgau, eastern Germany.

According to Kiess, the AfD represents a clear market-liberal stance and advocates the abolition of all subsidies, including for farmers, which is in direct contradiction to what farmers are protesting for.

“And they are particularly against climate-friendly subsidies that could help farmers make their operations more ecologically and economically sustainable.”

“In fact, the AfD, together with the CDU and the governing coalition, even voted for the abolition of the subsidies in question.”

The AfD, which recently achieved record-breaking poll numbers, is hoping for big gains in the three eastern state elections this year – Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg. According to polling data released on Thursday, the party is well ahead of its rivals in all three states.

Even if the state elections have no direct impact on federal politics, they could send a worrying signal to Scholz's SPD-led government ahead of next year's federal election.

German ministers and a domestic intelligence chief have warned that right-wing extremists could try to exploit the farmers' protests.

Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Robert Habeck, who experienced the anger of farmers firsthand when a group of demonstrators tried to storm the ferry he had just left last week, spoke of “coup fantasies” of the right-wing extremists.

“Calls with coup fantasies are circulating. Extremist groups are forming and nationalist symbols are openly displayed,” Habeck told reporters on Monday.

“It is clear that something has slipped in recent years that has taken away the limits of legitimate democratic protest.”

Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

A demonstrator walks through Berlin on Monday carrying a German flag with a banana on it. Farmers gathered in the capital to protest against planned subsidy cuts by the federal government, including for agricultural diesel.

Stephan Kramer, head of domestic intelligence in the eastern state of Thuringia, told CNN: “What we have definitely noticed is that extremists – especially from the right-wing spectrum – have used the completely legitimate farmers' protests to accompany these protests.” to announce corresponding calls on social media or to encourage their own right-wing extremist forces to march with them or to be present on the sidelines.

“And above all, we saw that the Alternative for Germany in Thuringia, which has been classified as right-wing extremist in Thuringia since 2021, has also shown specific solidarity with the farmers and called for appropriate protest marches.”

Kramer added that the farmers' associations themselves had distanced themselves from the extreme 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 concerns and do not want to be taken over by right-wing extremists.”

Similarly, Kiess said that while farmers in Germany tend to be conservative, the majority do not support the right-wing extremists.

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

“The current frustration with politics in general, not just the current government and farmer subsidies, risks making farmers more vulnerable to the far right as they feed on the anti-establishment issue,” he said.

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