The European elections are testing an unpopular government and a scandal-hit far-right party in Germany

BERLIN — An unpopular government with a reputation for constant infighting. An economy that is in a rut. A strong far-right party that has been embarrassed by its leading candidate and alienated its European allies. And a regular opposition that is still working on its recovery.

German politics is in a disaffected, volatile state as the country's voters prepare to fill 96 of the 720 seats in the European Parliament on June 9, the largest national contingent in the 27-nation European Union.

It is the first nationwide vote since center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to power at the end of 2021, ending the 16-year rule of center-right predecessor Angela Merkel. Her era was characterized by often consensual politics and a series of 'grand coalition' governments between the traditional major parties of the right and left.

That conviviality, which was already tested during Merkel's time by a series of crises and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is definitely over.

“These European elections are taking place in the context of an economic crisis, but also a government crisis, because the government … really has very low popularity ratings,” said Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant. Voters will likely use the vote to express their dissatisfaction, he added.

Scholz says that “trust is the best antidote to extremism” in turbulent times. But his government has not inspired much confidence.

The coalition of the Social Democrats with the environmentalists The Greens and the business-minded Free Democrats has successes to its name. These include averting an energy crisis after Russia cut gas supplies to Germany, expanded aid to Ukraine – although the details have caused friction – and a series of socially liberal reforms.

But the overwhelming impression of a government seeking to modernize Germany is one of continued discord as the economy, Europe's largest, struggles to generate growth.

The coalition battle has not paused for the elections. The partners are discussing how to put together a 2025 budget while adhering to Germany's strict self-imposed rules on running up debt. That dilemma has already forced a hasty, court-ordered overhaul of the 2024 budget, complete with cuts in subsidies that sparked protests from farmers.

Opposition leader Friedrich Merz told parliament earlier this year that the government is “ruling against the majority of voters and the population in Germany.” He lamented that the mood was “full of doubt and uncertainty.”

Merz has sought to give his party, once led by the centrist Merkel, a sharper conservative profile since taking over after the 2021 election defeat.

His Union bloc has only partially benefited from the unpopularity of Scholz and his coalition; Although surveys have given the country a clear lead, it is struggling to get its support above the unspectacular 30% of the vote. There are questions about the extent to which the 68-year-old Merz, a former rival of Merkel with no government experience, appeals to voters.

It is not yet clear who will challenge Scholz in the national elections expected in the fall of 2025. The Union plans to make a decision after three state elections in September in Germany's former communist east.

The vote in the European Parliament and state votes in three strongholds will test the AfD, which fed on widespread discontent and for a while managed to gain support of more than 20%.

A series of recent setbacks appear to have dampened the share price somewhat. First, there was a media report in January that extremists were meeting to discuss the deportation of millions of immigrants, including some with German citizenship, and that some party figures were present. The report led to mass protests against the rise of the extreme right.

Last month, an aide to Maximilian Krah, AfD's top candidate in the European elections, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. The No. 2 candidate, Petr Bystron, is facing an investigation after denying allegations that he may have received money from a pro-Russian network. The party has already been criticized for its Russia-friendly positions.

The AfD subsequently banned Krah from campaigning after he told an Italian newspaper that not all members of the Nazis' elite SS unit were war criminals. That was not enough to prevent the party from being expelled from the far-right Identity and Democracy Group in the European Parliament.

In addition, a court ruled that one of the best-known AfD figures, Björn Höcke, knowingly used a Nazi slogan in a speech in 2021 and fined him.

“Instead of being able to speak about its own position, it has to comment weekly on scandals and accusations in the media,” said Hillje. The core of AfD voters will not be deterred, but “those who are not entirely sure whether to vote for the AfD might reconsider as a result of these scandals and accusations.”

It still seems likely that the AfD will make gains from the 11% of votes it secured in the 2019 European Parliament elections, although perhaps not as much as it had hoped.

Some observers believe that a new party founded by prominent opposition politician Sahra Wagenknecht, which combines left-wing economic policies with a restrictive approach to migration and other positions that may appeal to some AfD voters, could erode her support.

About 60.9 million German citizens are eligible to vote, along with 4.1 million residents of other EU countries who can decide whether to vote in Germany or in their country of origin.

___

Kerstin Sopke contributed to this report.

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