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The 2021 German elections are all scheduled to be held on 26th September in order to appoint members of the 20th Bundestag. Nearly sixteen years after exerting influence over the most significant European economy, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor; this is for the first time in the post-WWII era that the reigning Chancellor did not seek reelection. Since May 2021, three dominant parties have led polls: center-right Christian Democrats, center-left Social Democratic, and the Greens.

This year will mark the end of a political era in Germany; the state’s decisiveness in confronting extremism emanating from the right-wing can serve as an example for states facing similar security threats on the global stage. Although German and American electoral system differs considerably, something similar has turned up during the former’s election campaigns: fraud claims and conspiracy theories. According to the experts, these claims are primarily influenced by the 2020 ‘American stolen election narrative.’

Reichsbürger Movement: a challenge to the legitimacy of the German state

Much of the German elections' narrative is centered on the nebulous Reichsbürger Movement that rejects the legitimacy of modern German states. The movement asserts that Germany and Austria did not attain official recognition as independent by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). The followers claim that the borders of the German Empire that existed in 1871 or 1937 still prevail; therefore, allied power still maintains a hold over the state's administrative construct. In 1949, allied powers merged their occupational zones into West (Bundesrepublik) and East Germany (German Democratic Republic). In the 90s decade, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, both zones were united to form a modern federal republic. The Reichsbürger movement also maintains links with far-right politics and anti-Semitic groups.  

SHAEF conspiracy theory asserts that since the German state is non-existent, elections are also invalid. However, just like QAnon conspiracy in the USA, SHAEF theory can be salvaged, rescuing Germany from trouble. While in America, Trump's adherents believe will ultimately intersect and restore power, in Germany, theorist believes that Cdr Jansen, with the help of reinstated Trump, is likely to establish a legitimate government. However, this is a senseless idea that originated in the German far-right social media presence.  

Querdenken mass movement: Rise of the conspiracy movement

Querdenken movement, founded by Michael Ballweg, emerged in 2020; it has become a central point for the proliferation of misinformation surrounding German elections. The Querdenkers encompass pandemic cynics, anti-vaxxers, and anti-lockdown demonstrators. According to them, federal and regional laws that claim to curb the spread of Covid are framed to violate civil liberties. Xenophobia is not dominant in the Querdenken movement, and it claims to have no political affiliation; instead, it is more inclined toward anti-authoritarianism and anthroposophy. This claim fits wells with demos that include dancers, drummers, and singers, on the one side, and far-right extremists that bear Reichskrieg flag, and anti-Semitic views on the other side.  

In response to the conspiracies, Querdenkers argue that lawful demonstrations are being abused to arouse escalations. However, there are rising concerns that the far-right’s online presence could lead to extremist voting.

  • Physical and social harm

Facebook has taken down a network of social media accounts associated with Quardenken. It declared a new crackdown on coordinated campaigns of real rule, stating that brigading encourages real-world harm. Moreover, Facebook expanded its security teams and employing diverse tactics to mitigate the influence operation carried out by fake users. In response, Quardenken argued that such action is was a constraint upon individual freedom of expression ahead of the federal election.

Representatives of the movement argue that they conduct their operations within the boundaries set by the constitutional law; however, their actions depict otherwise. According to the police, the group has carried out the physical assault, targeting journalists, police, and medical health professionals in Germany. The growing preparedness to employ violence has promoted conspiracies theories and a dogma that splits everything into good and evil, representing a toxic brew and the probability of increased radicalization.

  • Spread of disinformation- radicalizing role of telegram

The spread of disinformation can have a determining role in the German federal election. This year, there were widespread claims about fraudulent voting during the local elections. For example, in East of Saxony-Anhalt, the far-right Alternative for Germany (Afd) party maintained a strong base. When Adf lost its 3.5 percentage points of its share, the hashtag Wahlbetrug, fueled by the far-right, began trending on Twitter. 

Disinformation and defamation tactics have also replicated during the federal elections. For example, 

  1. A false flag account was created by a user who professed to tamper with votes to favor the Green Party. Even though the account was reported and deleted, it led to the circulation of false screenshots. 
  2. A video went viral on social media featuring Germany’s most influential far-right bloggers; they stated that mail-in-ballots are being tampered with. 
  3. In May, a state-run TV channel, RT DE, was accused of tarnishing the reputation of Annalena Baerbock, a candidate for the Green Party. The TV channel broadcasted an opinion paper criticizing Ms. Baerbock for her speech in which she praised ‘our grandparents’ for bringing peace to the European continent. The article stated that given that her grandfather fought with the Nazi era, whose shoulders does Ms. Baerbock view herself on?

According to the German interior ministry, such interventions are likely to play a destabilizing role in the German electoral process and disrupt the social cohesion of the state in the long run. Furthermore, the telegram has played a radicalizing role ahead of general elections in Germany and has emerged as a go-to source for conspiracies and partisan content. For instance, a post with 80,000 views called for the votes to support independent candidates. Another post with more than 72,000 views warned people about Beg-tech enterprises and the German military, stating that they are out to underscore the upcoming elections. The third post generated the most views, i.e., 200,000; it spread false claims about the vaccine and condemned the ‘Plandemia Mafia.” 

Despite the disinformation propaganda, intelligence analysts and experts, such as Jordan Wilson, argue that such movements are not likely to seriously impact voting intentions. One of the bases of German politics is its strength and stature; therefore, the proliferation of disinformation will not cause a dramatic and sudden shift, as is the case elsewhere in the world. 

  • Postal voting and fraudulent claims- the great reset? 

In Germany, the opportunity to cast votes from the safety of one’s own home amid the global pandemic has appealed to many voters. According to the statistics, there has been a 28.6% increase in mail-in ballots as opposed to the 2017 federal elections. Proponents of postal voting argue that such a system is more inclusive and is advantageous for a broader category of people, including the disabled or the elderly. However, at the same time, the integrity of the postal voting system has also been under scrutiny on mainstream social media, casting doubts on the credibility of the vote. Moreover, there are widespread concerns that this would allow some people to vote twice. 

AfD party and Die Basis have been spreading conspiracy theories since the beginning of 2021 that mainstream political parties will use mail-in votes to rig the ballot; they have called absentee voting ‘undemocratic and unconstitutional.’ These claims have given rise to the idea of ‘the Great Reset,’ suggesting that political elites have exploited the Covid-19 situation to exert their control over German politics. There are various ways to manipulate the system in postal voting; for instance, it can over-represent West Germans, economically better-off, students, and prisoners. According to the right-wing, federal elections are ‘swansong for rotten Germany,’ which will mark an end to democratic governance and fundamental freedoms. 

But, even in-person voting is not completely secure or without controversies; anti-vaccine groups have been making baseless claims that un-vaccinated people will not be allowed to enter the polling stations.  Federal Returning Officer has disregarded all such claims.

How can Germany counter such conspiracies? 

Given the current scenario and discourse surrounding the federal election propagated by anti-government forces, it is imperative for German intelligence to effectively monitor the situation. Extremist actors are found in both left and right-wing and disenfranchised voters; therefore, they cannot be classified solely based on ideology. The problem is further complicated by the rise of conspiracy theories regarding ‘global cable,’ making it difficult for the state to locate actor long traditional left-right spectrum. 

Currently, there have been no serious ramifications for the instigators. One such figure is Attila Hildamann, who successfully evaded prosecution by the state and fled out of the country in February 2021. He now runs a channel on Telegram with more than 100,000 subscribers. Enforcement, accountability, and transparency should be watchwords for Germany amid the current situation. Moreover, mail-in votes must be checked against the voter’s registry to prevent tampering, and the ballot box should be locked in a safe and secure location. Lastly, the ballot boxes should be opened in front of the electoral board to dismiss fraudulent claims.

Written By: Olivium's Editor


References:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58655702

https://www.pri.org/stories/2021-09-20/dubious-voting-fraud-claims-germany-spread-online-ahead-elections

https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/13/germany-election-disinformation-social-media/

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/covid-conspiracy-theorists-complicate-path-to-german-election-1.4674000

https://www.dw.com/en/the-problem-of-fake-news-in-germanys-election-campaign/av-59260667

https://www.dw.com/en/covid-lockdown-opponents-try-to-sway-german-election/a-59005055

https://www.lawfareblog.com/german-far-right-doesnt-need-win-elections-be-dangerous

https://www.dw.com/en/the-reichsb%C3%BCrger-movement-in-germany/g-41074914

https://www.dw.com/en/meet-germanys-querdenker-covid-protest-movement/a-57049985

https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/13/germany-election-disinformation-social-media/

https://www.dw.com/en/german-election-the-postal-vote-and-fraud-claims/a-58844693

https://www.politico.eu/article/german-telegram-election-misinformation/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56912882

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