This story was produced in partnership with Coda Story.
BURGSTÄDT, Germany—Björn Höcke, an influential state-level leader for the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, took the stage at a campaign event in the small city of Burgstädt in Saxony ahead of this weekend’s election. He began his speech with the kind of universal appeal politicians often make in the final weeks of a campaign, encouraging supporters to go out and vote.
But Höcke—head of a radical faction within the AfD known simply as “the Wing” and a man who once described Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument of shame”—did not stop there. Not only should the faithful cast their ballots for the party, he said, but they should also make sure to do it in person and not by mail, which, he alleged, is vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. “Anyone who has an interest in fair elections and secret elections should go to their polling place,” he explained.
Germany heads to the polls this Sunday in an unusually open and unpredictable general election that could determine the country’s direction for decades. For the first time in 16 years, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has helmed the country since 2005, is not standing again.
The three candidates—Armin Laschet, from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, Olaf Scholz from the center-left Social Democrats, and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens—are locked in a volatile race for the nation’s highest office. In the final days of the campaign, Scholz’s SPD is in the lead with 25 percent, followed closely by Laschet’s CDU. The Greens, however, have recently fallen behind.
Parties that advocate for postal voting, Höcke continued—including the Greens and the SPD—were essentially condoning voter fraud. He then brought up the example of an unproven story making the rounds this year about a young Green supporter allegedly casting their grandmother’s vote for the party without her knowledge.
If wide-scale election manipulation could occur in the United States, he said, drawing on the dizzying number of false claims made by President Trump during his 2020 presidential campaign, “then I know that it’s possible in the most important country in Europe.”
“Stay alert, my friends,” he added, at the event on Sept. 11. “This is about our democracy.”
As up to 60 million Germans prepare to vote, Höcke is just one of many reactionary figures alleging the election has already been fixed. Less than a year after Trump flooded the U.S. presidential elections with conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud in the United States—leading to five deaths during the January 6 assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—German far-right parties have picked up the narrative and run with it.
The allegations of voter fraud in Germany have come from a cast of extreme actors, including AfD leaders and politicians, radical right-wing organizations like Ein Prozent, and conspiracist movements including QAnon and the anti-lockdown Querdenken group.
While the AfD remains a small force in German politics—it is currently polling at around 11 percent nationally, slightly below the 12.6 percent achieved in 2017—the party’s supporters, primarily communicating through Telegram, claim that postal ballots will be used to steal the election. Others subscribe to a false belief, which also circulated in the U.S., that the election will be hijacked by rigged voting machines.
While calling foul after an election loss is not a new tactic, disinformation experts say Trump’s unrelenting allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election have inspired like-minded movements in Germany to resort to similar tactics.
“Donald Trump isn’t the reason we have voter fraud narratives, we already had those before,” said Karolin Schwarz, a Berlin-based author and journalist who tracks far-right disinformation online. “But he contributed to the existing narratives and maybe even created some more that hadn’t been around before.”
In November 2020, AfD leaders released a tepid statement acknowledging Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s U.S election victory: “We accept the democratic decision of the American citizens and are confident that possible irregularities in the vote counts will be resolved quickly through the rule of law,” it read.
Yet some party members disagreed. “No congratulations for the globalist electoral fraudster Joe Biden,” Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD member of parliament, wrote on Twitter, claiming there had been “massive irregularities.” Deputy party leader Beatrix von Storch also contradicted the statement and tweeted about “massive evidence of election fraud.”
German officials have prepared for the possibility that, due to the ongoing pandemic, up to half of the country’s voters will cast mail-in ballots in the general election—up from almost 29 percent in 2017. For a number of conspiracy theorists and right-wing figures, such statistics lend credence to their notions of rampant manipulation and deception.
The first preview of what might happen after Sunday’s elections came in June, during regional elections in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD won more than 20 percent of the vote. When the party’s support failed to match its polling numbers and the Christian Democrats performed significantly better than expected—the AfD ended up trailing the CDU by 16 points—far-right politicians and commentators immediately began to cite election fraud, many posting a now-debunked report that some poll workers were invalidating AfD votes.
While the Saxony-Anhalt allegations were spread primarily by individuals on the fringes of the AfD, the party has now embraced these ideas. In late August, AfD social media accounts began to feature campaign ads that echoed Höcke’s speech: “A mailbox isn’t a polling place,” they read.
Nora Mathelemuse, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, believes that the AfD’s focus on election fraud is part of an effort to seize the spotlight at a time when voters are looking to mainstream politicians to steer Germany out of the coronavirus pandemic.
The party’s followers are clearly on board. I spoke to a handful at Höcke’s rally. None were willing to vote by mail and all believed the election results would be compromised.
“I can’t really imagine voting by mail because I think postal voting is prone to fraud—you can manipulate a lot with postal votes,” said Peter Kunadt, a 58-year-old man from Burgstädt. He brought up both the U.S. election and the Saxony-Anhalt vote, saying that he couldn’t see how late-breaking shifts in votes in both cases were possible without some kind of tampering along the way.
Thomas, 53, who declined to give his last name, agreed that mail-in ballots could not be trusted. “It’s going to be manipulated, I’m 100 percent sure,” he said. “With postal voting, it’s easy to cheat.”
In the long term, the dangers of such beliefs are clear: “The underlying core of this narrative is that it’s trying to destabilize the democratic process within Germany,” said Mathelemuse. “Because if the election doesn't properly work, then what is our democracy?”
If nothing else, widespread rumors of voter fraud will almost certainly make the lives of poll workers and election officials significantly more difficult. In his speech, Höcke urged AfD supporters to visit polling centers to serve as informal observers. He asked them to write down the number of votes for each party and compare their figures with the official results. The AfD has a page on its website dedicated to such reports. Its headline reads: “Trust is good—control is better.”