A record number of demonstrators turned out yesterday to support a protest led by Alternative for Germany (AfD) against German asylum policy.
Police in attendance estimated as many as 8,000 people joined the rally in Erfurt, reports news weekly Der Spiegel, considerably more than the 5,000 who had protested against German asylum policy just one week earlier. The event took place outside the Thüringenhalle, a sports and music venue temporarily used for housing migrants, with attendees from all over Germany ranging from youths in hoodies to those in their 70s.
The crowd was addressed by regional leaders of AfD, the eurosceptic anti-mass migration party often referred to as Germany’s UKIP, reports FOCUS. Björn Höcke and Alexander Gauland, AfD regional chairmen for the German federal states of Thuringia and Brandenburg respectively, called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to resign.
A third speaker, Armin-Paul Hampel, is AfD state chairman for Niedersachsen which, in contrast to the states represented by Höcke and Gauland, is in western Germany.
A counter demonstration of some 800 people was led by the Chairman of the Green Party Faction in the German federal parliament, Katrin Göring-Eckardt. She told her supporters that Merkel’s pro-asylum policies were important because the right to asylum is enshrined in the German constitution.
Speaking to his larger crowd Höcke said temporary assistance for migrants could not give way to long-term integration, saying: “The legal right to asylum cannot be maintained in its current form.”
Police separated the opposing groups, with the Green Party rally being held outside the state parliament building a short distance away, although there was some violence reported. Firecrackers were exchanged and four of the pro-migrant protesters were arrested for throwing stones.
Höcke told the crowd freedom of speech in Germany is “existentially threatened” and demonstrations are the first means of winning it back. He pointed out the Thuringian state parliament had thrown its weight behind the counter-demonstrators, saying it was a block to democracy. The crowd responded with shouts of “traitors”.
In his speech Gauland said the controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán should win the Charlemagne Prize – the annual award for contributors to Western European understanding in the services of humanity and world peace.
The migrant crisis is helping AfD recoup losses it suffered after the summer departure of its founder, Bernd Lucke. A recent poll put the party on seven per cent nationally, high enough to secure it seats in the Bundestag. Regionally, the party hits highs of 12 per cent.
Next week the AfD will take the protest to a new location, leaving behind Erfurt the next event will take place in Magdeburg.