German Election Campaign Takes a Racist Turn

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Johannes Eisele / REUTERS

Zeca Schall, a 45-year-old Angolan-born integration specialist of the Christian Democrat party (CDU), poses for a portrait in the eastern state of Thuringia, in Hildburghausen, Germany. The poster reads, 'Thuringia, well done'

The election campaign in Germany took an ugly turn last week when the country's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) threatened a black member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Angolan-born Zeca Schall, who has German citizenship, was featured on CDU campaign posters in the eastern state of Thuringia, which is holding a regional election on Aug. 30. The posters went up on Aug. 1; 10 days later, the NPD attacked Schall on its website, calling him a "n_____ for the CDU party quota," telling him to "go back home to Angola" and urging its members to deliver the message to him personally. In an act that had tones of a modern-day lynching, NPD supporters tried to march to Schall's house in the central town of Hildburghausen, but they were stopped by police. Since Aug. 11, Schall has been under police protection.

Schall, 45, has been living in Hildburghausen for more than 20 years and has been advising the regional CDU party on integration issues since 2007. Although he isn't running for office in the Thuringia state elections, he's a prominent member of the CDU's campaign team. Schall's picture on the party's posters — alongside shots of a florist, a pensioner and a student — is meant to celebrate Thuringia's diversity, despite the fact that the state is home to very few immigrants. "I was shocked by what the NPD did," he tells TIME in a statement. "I've never experienced anything like this, but I'm not going to give up. I love Thuringia, and I'm going to continue in politics."

The CDU condemned the NPD's statements, and party officials asked state prosecutors to investigate whether criminal charges could be pressed on grounds of incitement to racial hatred. State prosecutors have launched an official inquiry. "The NPD is aggressive, xenophobic and inhuman," says Heiko Senebald, a spokesman for the CDU in Hildburghausen. "The NPD pretends to be looking after local communities, but the party has revealed its true colors by attacking Zeca Schall."

In its defense, the NPD says on its website that it's reacting out of concern for German workers: "Angola needs Schall, and there are 100,000 Germans who need Schall's job in Thuringia." But many see the party's outright attacks on Schall as a sinister sign that the once sidelined party is growing more confident. While the party hasn't been able to get into Germany's federal parliament — the Bundestag — it has been more successful at the grass-roots level. The NPD is well organized and active in local communities, launching popular campaigns and reaching out to young, unemployed people who are disillusioned with mainstream politicians. Thuringia has emerged as a key election battleground for the NPD ahead of the state vote at the end of August, with the party determined to enter the regional parliament. If it does, Thuringia would be the third state where the NPD is represented, along with the east German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony.

Ever since reunification, far-right violence has been on the rise in eastern Germany, and some places have virtually become no-go areas for people with an immigrant background. Recent figures from Germany's domestic intelligence agency show that the number of far-right crimes jumped about 16% from 2007 to 2008. "The Zeca Schall case is horrific, and it exposes the dangerous far-right ideology of the NPD, but there are hundreds of other people who've been attacked by far-right groups," says Timo Reinfrank, program director of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which helps victims of far-right violence. "This is the reality in eastern Germany where immigrants are targeted by right-wing extremists."

Reinfrank says the conservative government in Thuringia, led by Merkel ally Dieter Althaus, isn't doing enough to counter the threat of far-right extremism. "The state government should support local groups that fight against the far right," he says. "Other regional governments have mobile consulting teams or help lines for victims of far-right violence, but the state of Thuringia doesn't invest enough time and resources to tackle the problem." The Thuringia government refutes Reinfrank's criticisms, arguing that it has steadily increased funds dedicated to working against the rise of the far right.

Other politicians have been moved to more immediate action. The Schall case has prompted some to call for a ban against the NPD, with the Interior Minister of Bavaria, Joachim Herrmann, announcing on Aug. 15 that he would launch a bid next year to ban the party. The federal government had already tried to ban the NPD in 2003, saying its far-right ideology breached Germany's constitution and strict anti-Nazi laws. But that attempt failed when judges at Germany's highest court threw out the government's case, saying some of the evidence against the NPD was inadmissible because it had been collected by informants for the German intelligence service.

According to some opinion polls, the NPD has around 4% of the vote in Thuringia, just below the 5% needed to get into parliament. With less than two weeks to go, the party could still pull in enough votes. In a 2004 regional election in the eastern state of Saxony, observers wrote off the NPD's chances of getting into the state parliament, yet the party proved the pollsters wrong and went on to win 9.2% of the vote. The NPD's attacks on Schall are just the latest chilling reminder that the far right is still alive and kicking in Germany.