Breakaway members of Dresden's anti-Islamist Pegida organisation have established a new movement, demanding direct democracy and repatriation of key competences from Brussels back to EU capitals.
Former Pegida spokeswoman Kathrin Oertel said she and others had formed Direct Democracy for Europe (DDfE) after a majority of Pegida's steering committee refused to distance themselves from its controversial founder Lutz Bachmann.
“Europe is growing together every day. We think it is important that citizens have the right for a direct say in government so they are not ruled over their heads,” said Ms Oertel, calling for referendums at all levels of German politics.
DDfE organisers hope to position themselves to the right of Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but, for now, say they have no ambition of becoming a political party.
Instead it plans to build support in Saxony, hoping its substitution of “direct democracy” for “islamisation” will win over moderate and conservative supporters to an inaugural meeting on Sunday in Dresden, a day before Pegida’s next march.
Ms Oertel, a 37-year-old business consultant and mother of three, said her political engagement has been a baptism of fire that has brought widespread intimidation. For her, the campaign against her is further proof that mainstream German society is unable and unwilling to debate hot-button issues.
In weekly marches, Pegida called for greater spending on police, limits on migration and a less confrontational approach in Germany's dealings with Russia.
Not planning revolution
“We’re not planning a revolution, nothing we’ve said is against the law, yet demands like ours either fall on deaf ears or provoke massive attacks,” she said. “We don’t represent the extreme-right wing nor do we want to give them a platform.”
Pegida grew exponentially from last October via Facebook, drawing at its peak 25,000 people to Monday night marches under a banner warning of the "islamisation of the West".
The weekly marches drew considerable extreme-right support, and Mr Bachmann was discredited last month when Facebook posts emerged of him posing as Hitler and dismissing asylum seekers as “trash” and “cattle”. His plan to stay on in the background, and continued support for an extremist Pegida offshoot in Leipzig, prompted the split.
Ms Oertel and Mr Bachmann grew up in the same town and knew each other as teenagers. When they co-founded Pegida last autumn, she says she knew nothing of his views towards migration and asylum.
Though she acknowledged problematic elements in Pegida, Ms Oertel argued that Germany’s current batch of politicians were a greater danger to democracy. Their refusal to engage between elections with issues of concern had, she said, bred disillusioned stay-at-home voters and “risks a civil war”.
The new grouping will face a German political establishment that is traditionally dubious of direct democracy, recalling the Weimar’s instability and its subsequent dismantlement by the Nazis – backed by popular plebiscite.
“Direct democracy is a stop-gap solution for this group,” said Dr Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. It is “simply a new vehicle for them to continue their efforts to seal off the west from immigration”.