Pegida, the anti-immigration group, held its first "evening stroll" four years ago. Hundreds of state-sanctioned protesters turned out on Sunday in the eastern German city of Dresden to prevent Pegida from celebrating it.
Since the launch of Pegida – short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – it has encouraged more people to express their displeasure at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous migrant policies, rising crime, and uncontrolled immigration.
After four years it has become a political movement, but a so-called “broad alliance” of left-wing Dresden organisations wants to shut it down.
Founder Lutz Bachmann, Sigfried Daebritz and Michael Stürzenberger addressed the crowd, but many well-known and also international speakers were also invited – among them Tommy Robinson, Philip Dewinter from the Belgian Vlaams Belang, and also participants from the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Pegida supporters gathered in front of Dresden’s historic Frauenkirche, where one of their banners warned Merkel that “your days … are numbered”.
The state of Saxony’s premier, Michael Kretschmer, addressed the counter-protesters, telling them that their presence was an “important signal” against Pegida’s message of “xenophobia”.
Kretschmer, a member of Merkel’s ruling coalition, added: “It’s important that we get involved and face those who only have simple answers.”
Police said the demonstrations were largely peaceful, although there were five cases of bodily assault, including one case where where a Pegida supporter was beaten by three unknown assailants.
The movement was launched in October 2014 by Dresden businessman Bachmann and saw support for its weekly rallies, urging tough immigration policies, quickly rising.
It has since expanded to other cities with tens of thousands of people joining anti-immigration marches. In 2016, the group counted some 200 000 Facebook followers.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) – launched around the same time – has largely benefitted from the rising tide of anti-Islam sentiment expressed by Pegida. It is now the largest opposition party in Germany’s lower house of parliament, despite massive opposition funded by the mainstream parties.
Many blue AfD banners were in fact also spotted at the Pegida celebration.
Particularly in eastern Germany, the AfD could topple Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in next year’s state election in Saxony.
Also troubling for Merkel is that 56 per cent of Germans now believe she should no longer continue as chancellor according to a Forschungsgruppe Wahlen survey for broadcaster ZDF.
She is facing another round of key regional elections — this time in Hesse, home to Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt, on 28 October. The CDU is desperate to retain control of the state, one of her party’s traditional strongholds, but they are facing a strong challenge from the AfD as well as the Greens.
There are growing predictions that if the CDU loses power in Hesse Merkel will face a challenge for the party leadership.
The German Chancellor’s party, the CDU, is to receive only 26 percent of the votes. This would represent a 12 percent drop for Merkel’s party compared to the Chancellor’s results in the region’s last election in 2013, when the party won 38.3 percent of the seats.
The Social Democrats (SPD), part of Merkel’s governing coalition, is predicted to fall to 20 percent, far below its result of 30.7 percent in 2013, the survey showed.
This week, the AfD could gain as much as 12 percent of the votes, a result that would make the party be represented in all state parliaments of Germany for the first time ever.