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Germany's far-right party now polls higher than the three parties in government

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The far-right political party in Germany that is under domestic surveillance for the threat it poses to that country's democracy, now has higher poll numbers than each of the three parties in government. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz has more.

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ALICE WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's election season in Bavaria, where voters, many emerging from Oktoberfest hangovers, will choose state representatives this weekend. And for Alice Weidel, the co-chair of the Alternative for Deutschland Party, or AfD, German traditions like Oktoberfest are under threat from a political elite, which she says looks down on the rest of us.

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WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "They want to destroy our homeland," she told voters at a campaign event last month. "They want to ban our pork knuckle, our bratwurst, our schnitzel. Well, I'll promise you one thing. They will not take away my schnitzel." As it turns out, the AfD has more serious priorities beyond protecting schnitzel, and that's what's worrying Germany's Liberal government.

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WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: In a radio interview a couple of weeks ago, Weidel went beyond German cuisine.

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WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Weidel, who is married to a woman with whom she has children, complained to a public broadcaster about rainbow flags. "It's promoting a trans pop culture of a minority, and it raises concerns about how we protect our children from all this gender rubbish in school," she said. Whether it's Germany's LBGTQ community, Muslims or migrants, Weidel and her AfD party have, for years, targeted minorities with brash and threatening language. So much so that two years ago, Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution put the entire party under domestic surveillance, considering it a threat to the country's democracy. None of this seems to bother 22% of Germans, though. That's the share of voters who would elect the AfD if the election were held tomorrow, according to the latest poll. The party's popularity eclipses that of each of the three parties currently governing Germany.

WOLFGANG MERKEL: If the people don't believe that the future will be better than the present times, then they look for different parties.

SCHMITZ: Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel of Berlin's Humboldt University says German voters fear their country is on the decline. The latest frustration was a government bill to change how homes are heated. Many Germans feared they'd have to pay for expensive heat pumps. After a public outcry that the AfD joined, the bill failed, and the AfD's popularity skyrocketed. Merkel says the party's popularity is troubling because its rhetoric mirrors the agenda of similar populist movements in Poland and Hungary, where democratic norms have eroded.

MERKEL: This is something which threatens, in the longer run, also the democratic culture of this country and the democratic style of governance.

SCHMITZ: But in order to be in position to change how Germany governs, the AfD would need to be in a position to govern. AfD members currently hold only two leadership posts at local levels. Nationally, other parties have refused to form coalitions with the AfD, calling this pact a firewall.

GARETH JOSWIG: (Through interpreter) The AfD's strategy is to scratch away at that firewall to get to the other party's.

SCHMITZ: Gareth Joswig covers the AfD for Die Tageszeitung, one of Germany's biggest newspapers. He says so far, the AfD's strategy has not succeeded. But he says many observers are worried the right-center party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, the CDU, will be tempted to break that firewall. If a national election were to be held soon, the two parties would have the numbers to form a coalition government.

JOSWIG: (Through interpreter) This is an acid test for the CDU, which is stuck, in a sense, because it's lost so many voters to the AfD and because some people inside the CDU are prepared to work with the AfD.

SCHMITZ: Joswig believes the firewall will hold, but political scientist Wolfgang Merkel says the AfD often argues it's not needed.

MERKEL: Look at Austria. Look at France. Look even at countries like Sweden or Norway, the best democracies we have on the globe. There were right-wing populists in government, and democracy is not very much different from your countries.

SCHMITZ: Merkel says that since World War II, Germany has managed to keep right-wing populists out of its government because of the humiliation brought on by what he calls the barbarian years of the Nazi machine. But with a wave of populism spreading through Europe, it's not clear whether Germany can keep the AfD out. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.