While fighting for a seat in the German parliament over the last few months, Sergej Tschernow, a candidate for the right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, knew that he could only rely on a few media outlets to give his party the coverage it craves: the Russian ones. “They show our points of view in full,” he told TIME on Election Day, Sunday Sept. 24, when the AfD became the first far-right movement to enter into the German legislature since the end of World War II, winning a remarkable 13% of the vote and going from zero to more than 90 seats in a chamber of 631 lawmakers. The party’s rise has been caused by a range of factors, not least the widespread frustrations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political party, the Christian Democratic Union, had one of the worst showings in its history on Sunday. It won only 33% of the vote – most likely enough to secure Merkel a fourth term in office, but hardly the commanding lead the CDU anticipated.
With its nativist stance against immigration and its attacks against the European Union, the AfD has managed to siphon a lot of votes away from Merkel by harnessing the anti-establishment sentiment that has swept through Western democracies in recent years. But one uniquely German reason for the party’s success has been the broad support it enjoys among the Russian emigrant community — bolstered by the noisy partisan reporting of Kremlin-backed broadcasters, whose reports on the elections reached millions of German voters through satellite dishes, on cable and online.
The AfD has estimated that about a third of its support comes from Russian-speaking voters, several million of whom have settled in Germany since the 1980s; they now make up as much as 5% of the population. On Sunday night, one of the leaders of the AfD, a vocally anti-immigrant and nationalist party, appeared to concede – somewhat paradoxically – that its core constituents are themselves immigrants.
“Take a look at who really votes for the AfD, and where we have the strongest numbers,” Jörg Meuthen, the AfD party whip, told Chancellor Merkel and other leading politicians during a post-election debate on German television. “It is precisely among these migrants, among people with an immigrant background who lead integrated lives here and who cannot believe what is happening to this country.”