BERLIN (AP) — A German far-right party that swept into parliament last year on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment is staging a march Sunday through the heart of Berlin to protest against the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing it of ruining Germany by allowing the mass immigration of refugees.
Alternative for Germany, or AfD, took 12.6 percent of the vote in September's national election, coming third behind Merkel's conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats. After those two agreed to continue their governing coalition, AfD became the largest opposition party, a role that traditionally accords parties in Germany a prominent platform to promote their positions in Parliament.
AfD's novice lawmakers have struggled to grasp basic parliamentary procedures and have stood out mainly with blunt attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims, who made up the majority of the more than 1 million asylum-seekers to enter Germany in 2015 and 2016. Co-leader Alice Weidel was formally censured by parliament earlier this month for describing girls who wear Islamic headscarves as "useless people."
Sunday's rally, starting at Berlin's main train station and ending at the landmark Brandenburg Gate, is highly unusual for a German political party. While other parties have in recent years supported protests on a variety of issues — from animal rights to opposing free trade — AfD is the sole organizer of the march headlined "Germany's Future."
David Bebnowski, an expert who studies political protest, says AfD appears to be trying to portray itself as a champion of popular anger against the government in Europe's biggest economy.
"A demonstration is a classic expression of discontent outside parliament," he told The Associated Press.
Its move to the streets may also be an attempt to align itself more closely with the anti-Islam group PEGIDA, which has held weekly rallies in Dresden in recent years, said Bebnowski, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam.
It also reflects the party's tactic of provoking opponents to gain attention, he said.
AfD has threatened lawsuits against journalists, rival politicians and officials who have criticized it, even as it accuses opponents of using "Nazi methods." On Wednesday, party officials warned that far-left extremists could try to violently stop its rally in Berlin.
"This isn't a family excursion where you take your kids along," said Guido Reil, an AfD official organizing the rally.
More than a dozen groups have announced plans to stage counter-protests Sunday, including artists and a coalition of Berlin music clubs hoping to "blow away" AfD with loud techno beats. Berlin police are reportedly planning to put some 2,000 officers on the streets to keep the peace.
Bebnowski said the march could turn into a public relations disaster for AfD if it fails to prevent neo-Nazi groups and other extremists from joining its event. Party officials say some 100 stewards will watch out for banned symbols and chants.
Yet while the party publicly distances itself from extremism, German media have uncovered that dozens of regional and national lawmakers and AfD staff have links to neo-Nazi groups such as Blood & Honor and the Identitarian Movement, a white nationalist group that's under surveillance by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Observers have noted a clear rightward drift in the party in recent years, with prominent members expressing anti-Semitic and revisionist views not heard in German mainstream politics for decades. At least two AfD lawmakers have been convicted of incitement to hatred over the past year and its former leader, Frauke Petry, cited concerns about the party's direction when she quit AfD just after last year's election.
Georg Pazderski, a regional leader in Berlin, said he hopes a large turnout will demonstrate that the party is supported by ordinary people. Having secured seats in 14 state assemblies and the national parliament since its founding in 2013, AfD is setting its sights on a double-digit result in the Bavaria and Hesse state elections this fall.
The party has told Berlin police to prepare for 10,000 people. This week, senior AfD officials sought to lower the bar, saying they expect at least 2,500 participants and 5,000 would be a "great success."
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