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BERLIN – What happened to Germany's anti-Islam movement PEGIDA? After bursting into the limelight last year with weekly rallies that drew first hundreds, then tens of thousands, the group appears to have lost momentum.
A month ago, 25,000 marched through the eastern city of Dresden, brandishing signs that read "stop multiculturalism" and "Islam doesn't belong to Germany." Monday's protest against the perceived "Islamization of the West" attracted little over 4,000 people, according to police.
The drop can be explained in part by the disgrace of co-founder Lutz Bachmann, who stepped down after social media posts emerged showing him insulting foreigners and posing as Adolf Hitler — a scandal that caused a split in the movement.
But experts say that PEGIDA supporters may also be cowed by the sustained criticism they've face from German media, churches and politicians — right up to Chancellor Angela Merkel — suggesting that lower attendance figures don't necessarily mean the movement has gone away.
"The danger is that the sympathizers will withdraw further from mainstream politics and wait for the opportunity to use an election to express their real feelings," said Werner J. Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University Dresden. He added that the underlying issues which caused Germans to flock to PEGIDA's Monday marches, and even more so its Facebook page, haven't disappeared.
One of the few political parties to support PEGIDA is Alternative for Germany — which won seats in state legislatures in the eastern regions of Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony last year. On Sunday, this fledgling force in German politics entered its first state legislature in the west of the country, taking 6.1 percent of the vote. Known as AfD, the party has fostered a socially conservative image, with tough talk on crime and immigration.
The party appeals to voters who feel abandoned by Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic bloc, which has gradually relaxed its opposition to issues such as dual-citizenship for immigrants and gay adoption.
Those who fear publicly showing their support for PEGIDA may now simply vote for AfD, said Patzelt. "They may establish themselves as a party to the right of the Christian Democrats," he said. "And that would significantly change the domestic political game."
Critics of PEGIDA say its open opposition to immigration has had another alarming effect: During the three months from October to December, when protests were doubling in size by the week, the number of far-right attacks against asylum seeker homes and refugees doubled compared to previous quarters.
"It's obvious that neo-Nazis feel encouraged to paint swastikas and commit arson by the mood that angry citizens on the right have created," said Left party lawmaker Ulla Jelpke.
Officials in Dresden have been holding town hall meetings in an attempt to cool that anger and show they are taking voters' concerns seriously. But one question they've been unable to answer is how to deal with the soaring number of refugees coming to Germany.
Last year there were 173,072 new asylum applications in the country — almost twice as many as the previous year and five times as many as in 2004. Many happen to be Muslims fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Germany needs immigration to make up for its dwindling workforce, few of those applying for asylum come with the necessary skills or cultural background to fit seamlessly into German society — particularly in the east, where fear of Islam is strongest.
"Immigration itself is not the problem, but the lack of political will to steer this immigration and bring about integration," said Patzelt.
Frank Jordans can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter