Germany's anti-Islam Pegida movement made surprise gains in the first round of mayoral elections in the eastern German city of Dresden, securing 9.6 percent of the vote.
In what was the group's electoral debut, Pegida candidate Tatjana Festerling came fourth in the mayoral race, which was organized after Dresden Christian Democrat (CDU) Mayor Helma Orosz resigned in February for health reasons.
Throughout her campaign, Festerling called for a "renaissance" of German culture and lambasted asylum seekers who she said had "left family and home because here there's somewhere nice to live and you get dough from the state."
An opinion poll published ahead of the election had predicted that Pegida — an acronym of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — would secure a much smaller share of the vote amounting to between 1 and 2 percent, according to AFP.
Eva-Marie Strange, the joint candidate for the Social Democrats, Greens and far-left Linke party, came in first with 36 percent of the vote, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) party candidate, who took 31.7 percent of the vote. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat (CDU) party came third, with 15.4 percent of votes.
Pegida's surprise gains mark an unforeseen turn for the movement, which has been discredited by scandal and internal leadership disputes during the past few months.
Founded in Dresden on October 24, the movement started as a weekly demonstration against the German government's immigration policies — deemed too permissive by Pegida supporters — and the widespread "Islamization" of Germany and Europe. In the group's early days, Pegida marches gathered hundreds, but by November, the group had started drawing thousands of people onto the streets of Dresden.
Days after two gunmen opened fire on the editorial staff of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, a Pegida rally in its Dresden base drew a record 25,000 demonstrators, while a counter-protest was attended by 8,000. On the same night, a 20-year-old Eritrean refugee was stabbed to death in the south of the city, exposing racial tensions and anti-immigrant xenophobia across Germany.
Despite spreading from its Dresden stronghold to other German cities — including Berlin, Leipzig and Munich — the movement has failed to attract the same level of support elsewhere in the country. The numbers of Pegida protesters has steadily dwindled, and marchers in cities across Germany have frequently been outnumbered by counter-protesters. A January 12 Pegida march in Munich attended by 1,500 sparked a rival protest that drew a crowd of 20,000 people.
The group has also lost momentum in Dresden, and on May 19 the weekly Pegida march drew 3,000 people — a far cry from the attendance observed at the group's post-Charlie Hebdo rally.
Pegida offshoots have formed in other countries, too, including the US and France, but its international presence remains relatively weak. A Pegida rally in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux drew a crowd of thirty on January 25, while a rally in the southern town of Montpellier attracted only 60 supporters. French police banned a Pegida rally that was due to take place in Paris that same day.
The movement has also been struck by internal strife, which has left its leadership severely weakened. On January 21, German tabloid Bild published a photo of the movement's founder and leader, Litz Bachmann, posing as Hitler. Bachmann was forced to resign over the scandal, which severely damaged the group's image and harmed its claim that it is not a racist organization.
The movement's new figurehead, Kathrin Oertel, resigned just a week after her predecessor, claiming she had received "threats" and was being harassed by media photographers.
The mayoral race will go to a second round run-off scheduled for July 5 after no single candidate managed to obtain an absolute majority. Preliminary results from the first round indicate that the CDU will likely lose control of the city.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @MatthieuJublin
Image via blu-news.org/Flickr