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Far-Right Alternative For Germany Party Gains Seats In Regional Elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is having a bad day. Three German states held elections yesterday and her party was defeated in two of them. Daniela Schwarzer joins us now from Berlin. She is with the German Marshall Fund. Welcome to the show.

DANIELA SCHWARZER: Hello, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What are the headlines in Germany today?

SCHWARZER: Well, the headlines are clearly about the fact that the new right-wing populist party, Alternativa fuer Deutschland, made it into three regional parliaments and, in one of them, to a very high score - its highest score so far, clearly something that all the media are commenting about today.

SHAPIRO: An unexpectedly high number. What do you think this party is tapping into that is winning over voters?

SCHWARZER: The party started out as an anti-Euro party, and then it turned into an anti-immigration party. The party actually split, and this - what was left over of the initial AFD really turned on the migration issue, which is ever so present in Germany for over a year now. And if you want to voice your discontent with Chancellor Merkel's migration policy, there's actually only one party you can turn to and that is the Alternativa fuer Deutschland.

SHAPIRO: Do the results of this election give this anti-immigration party, AFD, real power in Germany?

SCHWARZER: AFD got no majority in any of the regions and it is, from today's perspective, unlikely that they will be part of any regional government. But they sit in regional parliaments and that gives them, of course, more media attention. They will be more vocal. And they are, of course, getting set up for the national elections in September 2017, so they will be a force to be reckoned with.

SHAPIRO: I don't know how closely you follow American politics, but in the presidential election here there does seem to be a strong anti-immigrant sentiment, a strong anti-establishment sentiment. Is there something in the water? What's going on right now?

SCHWARZER: Well, first of all I think there is a difference to see between the debate in the United States and how it has evolved in Germany. So the German debate about migration is much less radical than in the United States.

SHAPIRO: Which is a little bit funny because Germany has seen many more migrants than the United States.

SCHWARZER: Yes, indeed. I mean, Germany has welcomed over a million refugees last year or migrants and refugees. But there is nothing comparable in terms of rhetoric and radicalization that would be similar to Trump here in Germany. So we are...

SHAPIRO: ...Although didn't one of the leaders of AFD say Germany should defend its borders even if that means shooting migrants trying to enter the country?

SCHWARZER: That is true, and she has been very heavily criticized. She immediately then tried to withdraw that statement, but of course it is out there. But from the reactions, I think what the party saw and learned, really, was that Germany - given our past, really, the population and the political culture is not open to such radical statements and there are many more taboos than - as I see it in the United States at the moment.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Angela Merkel is still the chancellor of Germany. Do you think this setback in yesterday's elections is going to change her approach to these controversial policies including immigration?

SCHWARZER: Merkel stands for a very liberal approach to migration policy, basically saying our fundamental law grants a right to asylum and we shouldn't put any upper limits to this right. Of course in the last few weeks, some countries have pulled up their borders, but I do think it remains her objective both to keep the borders open, but then to control the inflow of migrants on the E.U.'s external borders, meaning to select who is a legitimate asylum seeker. And not dependent in on Sunday's elections, she wants to limit migration flows and reach agreements with the E.U.'s neighbors. That has been her policy for weeks, and I suppose she'll continue.

SHAPIRO: That's Daniela Schwarzer of the German Marshall Fund speaking with us via Skype from Berlin. Thanks for joining us.

SCHWARZER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.