Democracy under threat: The increasing normalisation of threats and violence directed at politicians and electoral candidates. 

While the main headlines after the recent European elections highlighted the surge in far-right gains, another key story was the series of violent attacks against politicians throughout the campaign. A string of incidents that occurred in Germany and Ireland during May and early June underscore the worrying trend of mounting hostility and aggression directed towards politicians in what has become an increasingly incendiary political environment. These attacks, which seem likely to continue, pose an ongoing threat to the democratic process.

The physical and verbal harassment of politicians by the electorate has become more frequent in recent years. During the 2019 European Parliament elections, the act of “milkshaking” became a viral protest tactic in the UK, as milkshakes were thrown at right-wing and far-right political candidates, sparking debates on whether or not it normalised political violence. During the COVID-19 restrictions, aggressive anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests targeted and intimidated politicians across Europe, with widespread death threats, verbal harassment, and protests outside the homes of public officials becoming commonplace.

Throughout the 2024 European Parliament election campaign, these developments intensified. In Ireland, where the backdrop of an anti-immigration backlash has fuelled protests at accommodation centres housing international protection applicants, the tense political environment has significantly heightened the danger towards public officials. A concurrent local election campaign has stood out for a shocking wave of violence and threats directed at candidates, with opposition to immigration typically triggering confrontations targeting those canvassing on campaign trails, ranging from verbal to physical attacks.

Earlier in May, Independent Councillor Tania Doyle and her husband were violently assaulted while putting up posters in Dublin by two men aggravated about immigration. On the same day, Councillor Janet Horner, a Green Party representative was also similarly attacked while hanging election posters in Dublin by a man espousing far-right views. Two women campaigning for the Social Democrats also reported to have been threatened with a knife while out canvassing by two men. Meanwhile, a man was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill anti-immigration campaigner and European election candidate Malachy Steenson, highlighting how opposition to the growing wave of far-right ideology can also prompt threats and intimidation. Violent attacks and threats of this nature in Ireland are unprecedented in recent memory.

Alongside these incidents, the far-right was particularly preoccupied with non-white candidates running in the Irish elections. The canvassing team of Suzzie O’Deniyi, a candidate for Fianna Fáil in Limerick, whose parents are from Nigeria, was subject to racist and misogynstic abuse by a man who filmed and followed them. Sarah Adedeji, a Fine Gael candidate received similar abuse while putting up her election posters. Footage circulating on social media showed Linkwinstar Mattathil Mathew, a Fine Gael election candidate from India, being ordered by men to take down his election posters, while independent candidate, Roopesh Kumar Panicker, also originally from India, reported being subject to such constant racist abuse, that he no longer felt safe, stating “I’ve stopped picking up the calls. I’m scared of who’s going to say what.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, there have been similar developments, where verbal and physical attacks on politicians have more than doubled since 2019. Throughout May, as the campaigns for European Parliament and district council elections got underway, a number of high-profile assaults targeting politicians took place as both government and opposition parties members and their supporters faced physical and verbal attacks, leading to calls for more police protection for politicians at election rallies.

Matthias Ecke, a politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and member of European Parliament, was hospitalised after being beaten by a group of men while hanging campaign posters in Dresden. The same group of men also ambushed a Green Party campaigner in the same area just before the attack, punching and kicking him to the ground. Another attack in Dresden targeted Greens candidate Yvonne Mosler, who was assaulted and spat upon while hanging posters in an attack caught on camera by a DW film crew. Franziska Giffey, a Berlin State Senator and German politician of the SPD was hospitalised after being hit on the head and neck from behind with a bag “filled with hard contents” during a visit to a library in the capital. 

Attacks are not only directed at left-leaning and Greens politicians, but have targeted those across the political spectrum, including an assault on Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative parliamentarian by a far-right activist in Aalen, an assault on two AfD politicians at an information stand in Stuttgart and most recently, an AfD candidate was stabbed in Mannheim after confronting a man who had been taking down his election posters. The latter attack took place just days after, and in the same city as, an Islamist knife attack on members of an anti-Islam party, in which five people were injured and an intervening police officer was killed. 

The threat posed by ideologically orientated attacks comes from a mixture of far-right, far-left and other issue-specific grievances. Statistics show that when all kinds of threats, verbal and physical attacks are counted, the Greens havebeen subject to most of the surging harassment in Germany, with its members reporting in 2023 that incidents had risen sevenfold since 2019. The AfD, are the second-most targeted party, but suffered more violent attacks (86 recorded in 2023) on AfD party representatives than any other party. Some politician attack perpetrators have also suffered from mental health problems, or have not yet been established as having a clear political motive, such as a recent assault on the Danish Prime Minister.

Taken together, events in Ireland and Germany represent samples of what is a broader trend happening not just across Europe, but also beyond. In the United States, threats to public officials has also grown, with federal charges for such offences rising by nearly 60 percent over the last ten years, and numbers on track to reach record highs. That these attacks are occurring more frequently suggests a worrying societal shift, in which violence and threats directed at political figures is being increasingly normalised and considered justified by a growing number.

Electoral candidates, often made vulnerable to violence through their campaigning activities, risk reducing their democratic participation due to intimidation. The level and range of threats varies for different political parties, with left-leaning and pro-environmental parties bearing the brunt of incidents and far-right activists at a higher risk of violence. However, it is female and non-white candidates who are perhaps at a higher risk of reducing their participation in election campaigns due to being disproportionately affected by feelings of insecurity. As physical attacks and harassment against politicians continues, defending the democratic process may require installing measures to better protect these elected representatives and candidates from threats and physical harm.