(Bloomberg) A former radio-show host who’s challenging Angela Merkel in her constituency is raising the once-unthinkable prospect of unseating her after 27 years, an upset he says is possible due to a well of anger about migration to Germany.
"We have a chance," said Leif-Erik Holm, 47, whose Alternative for Germany party, known as AfD, has experience in attracting defectors from the chancellor’s Christian Democrats in her eastern political homeland. "If we’re able to reach more retirees, it’s certainly possible that we could take this."
Unlikely as it may seem -- Merkel’s party refused to comment on the very idea -- the notion that the chancellor could even face a close race in her parliamentary district on the Baltic Sea coast underscores how her refugee policy is shifting the electoral maths ahead of the September 24 vote.
Polls all suggest the AfD will become the first far-right movement to win seats in Germany’s parliament since the second world war and possibly the third-strongest party. In the state that includes Merkel’s constituency, the scant polling evidence there suggests its support is around double the national level.
Germany’s electoral system ensures that even the political earthquake of a defeat wouldn’t disqualify Merkel from a fourth term as chancellor. But Holm is doing his best to trigger it all the same. As he takes the anti-Merkel backlash to her doorstep, he’s warning that immigration could turn native Germans into an ethnic minority, and likens their fate to that of Native Americans.
"I don’t want to be the Indians in our own country," he said in an interview in the seaside town of Wolgast, hours after protesters hurled tomatoes at Merkel’s armoured car as she arrived for a campaign rally. "That’s the problem with the Indians in the US. They live in reservations."
The AfD calls Germany’s growing Muslim population "a great danger to our state" and has zeroed in on the chancellor, blaming Merkel’s open-borders policy for the arrival of an estimated 1.3 million refugees in Germany since 2015.
As the chancellor addressed some 800 supporters inside a gymnasium in Wolgast, AfD protesters stood outside in the chill rain alongside hecklers from the ultra-nationalist National Democratic Party, which is under surveillance by federal authorities as an extremist group.
Demonstrators shouted "Merkel must go" and hoisted a sign saying, "Germany survived wars, the plague and cholera! But Merkel...?" Even as polls consistently show the chancellor on track to win the vote, such outbursts have become routine on her campaign trail, especially in formerly communist eastern Germany.
Merkel won her constituency, which includes the medieval trading cities of Stralsund and Greifswald and the scenic island of Ruegen, with 56% of the vote in the 2013 federal election, her best-ever showing. The CDU took 42% statewide in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which includes Merkel’s constituency.
Contrast that with last year, when the AfD, led locally by Holm, captured almost 21% in the state’s legislative election, finishing second and pushing the CDU into third place with 19%. Holm said he’s seen no polling for Merkel’s district, but pointed to surveys suggesting the CDU has declined by about 10 percentage points in the state since 2013.
"Maybe she’ll be down to 40%" in her district, Holm said. "I would hope even less."
Holm grew up in East Germany and earned a degree in economics after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He made his name as a popular radio DJ for over two decades from the 1990s. A native of Schwerin, the state capital, Holm joined the AfD in 2013 is now opposition leader in the state parliament.
Speaking over beer at a Wolgast fish restaurant, Holm kept to the nativist agenda of the AfD. He painted a picture of rising crime rates in cities fueled by foreigners and bemoaned what he called a prevalence of burqas, or full-face coverings worn by Muslim women. Holm cited a high number of mostly Muslim migrants "alien to our culture."
That’s a sentiment Merkel tackles head on. Responding to a remark by an AfD leader that her chief refugee-policy aide, a German-born woman of Turkish descent, should be "dumped in Anatolia," Merkel called it racist.
At Wolgast, as protest music thumped outside, Merkel dimissed "people who whistle and scream," telling her audience: "I don’t think that will be enough to bring Germany forward."
All the same, perhaps feeling the heat, Merkel added campaign stops in and around her constituency over the past two weeks, including Wolgast.
Under Germany’s complex mixed system of direct election and proportional representation, losing the seat she’s held on the strength of her personal popularity since 1990 wouldn’t necessarily mean Merkel’s ouster from parliament: She also tops the state’s list of CDU candidates.
Holm lays everything from Greek bailouts to Brexit at Merkel’s feet, and says it’s time for her to go.
"Without Merkel there would be no AfD," he said. "Without her you wouldn’t need to have the AfD."