Bjoern Hoecke, AfD party leader and top candidate for Thuringia, speaks during an election campaign rally ahead of the upcoming Thuringia state elections in Gotha, Germany October 23, 2019. (Reuters)
Political opponents say he's a Nazi and a court recently ruled he can be called a fascist, but to many Germans angry about immigration, Bjoern Hoecke is the leader they've been waiting for.
The 47-year-old former history teacher is predicted to lead the far-right Alternative for Germany to third or even second place in a regional election Sunday, despite being considered a possible extremist threat by the country's domestic intelligence agency.
A poll released Friday by public broadcaster ZDF forecast that the party, known by its German acronym AfD, would receive 21% of the vote in Thuringia, almost doubling its 2014 result in the state. The governing coalition of three left-wing parties is expected to lose its majority, according to the survey of 1,177 voters with a margin of error of up to 3 percentage points.
The vote in Thuringia, the reflects the difficulty mainstream parties have had confronting a politician who openly espouses racial ideology, has criticized Germany's efforts to atone for the Holocaust and has questioned whether Adolf Hitler was "entirely evil'' _ positions that would have been considered beyond the pale by most German voters until recently.
Like in other formerly communist eastern German states, where AfD is particularly strong, the outcome of Sunday's vote could force new and previously untested alliances between erstwhile political enemies united chiefly in their refusal to cooperate with the far right.
"I believe Hoecke is a Nazi,'' Mike Mohring, the lead candidate in Thuringia for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, told voters this week, making clear his party won't team up with AfD even though together they would likely have a majority.
In a book published last year, Hoecke laid out his view that a "strong broom'' is required to "clear the pigsty,'' making clear that he would target migrants and political opponents using "well-tempered cruelty'' if necessary.
Such language has alarmed even members of Hoecke's own party, which has twice tried unsuccessfully to kick him out. Former party leader Frauke Petry argued there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Hoecke had written pseudonymous articles for neo-Nazi magazines, a conclusion shared by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Hoecke has denied writing for neo-Nazi magazines or being an extremist. Still, he marched publicly alongside known extremists at a public rally last year and last month a regional court rejected Hoecke's complaint against protesters who described him as a "fascist,'' citing the contents of his book.
A strong result in Thuringia could cement Hoecke's position within the party, offering him a strong platform in upcoming leadership elections.
Since its founding in 2013, the party has drifted steadily to the right, embracing many of the positions previously held by fringe parties while also attracting conservative voters unhappy with Merkel's liberal policies on immigration.
Germany's security services have warned that far-right extremists feel increasingly emboldened, citing the killing in June of a moderate politician from Merkel's party who was shot dead by a suspected neo-Nazi, and the anti-Semitic shooting this month in Halle in which two people were killed.
Other parties have accused AfD of fueling the violence against political opponents and minorities with its vocal criticism of immigration, a charge the party has strongly denied.
Hammering home his message to voters in the final days of the campaign, Hoecke said AfD would "launch a deportation offensive 2020 if we get into government.''