BERLIN (AP) — Supporters of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party marched through central Berlin to protest against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government Sunday, while a heavy police presence kept the marchers away from a raft of counter-demonstrations.
Police said several thousand people turned out for the demonstration organized by Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD. A variety of counter-demonstrations attracted several thousand participants each, police said.
The AfD event opened with German flags, placards such as “No Islam in Germany” and chants of “Merkel must go” at Berlin’s central train station. The party’s supporters marched from the rally toward the landmark Brandenburg Gate.
Some of the counter-protesters took to rafts on the Spree river, within sight of the train station. Groups organizing protests against AfD included artists and a coalition of Berlin music clubs hoping to “blow away” the party with loud techno beats.
About 2,000 police officers were in place to prevent trouble, including reinforcements from other parts of Germany.
AfD won 12.6 percent of the vote to enter Germany’s national parliament last year on anti-migrant and anti-establishment sentiment. It is now the largest of four opposition parties after the country’s two biggest parties finally agreed to continue a centrist “grand coalition” under Merkel earlier this year.
Its march Sunday, an unusual move for a German political party, was headlined “Germany’s Future.” An AfD regional leader, Andreas Kalbitz, proclaimed that “this is a signal” and argued that it shows “AfD is the center of society.”
In parliament, AfD’s novice lawmakers have sometimes struggled to grasp basic procedures and stood out with blunt attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims, who made up the majority of the more than 1 million asylum-seekers to enter Germany in 2015 and 2016. Recent polls have put the party’s support around the same level as in last year’s election.
Prominent AfD lawmaker Beatrix von Storch told Sunday’s demonstrators that “the vital question for us is: freedom or Islamization?”
Among the protesters was Silke Langmacker, an accountant, who carried a sign reading “Taxpayers First.”
“We are here to stop the uncontrolled influx into the German welfare system,” she said. “The refugees must return to Syria and rebuild their country there.”
Karin Laub contributed to this report.