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Over Before It’s Begun?

“Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before […] It’s planting the seed of something huge.”

This is what ex-English Defence League leader, Stephen Lennon, told his 200 listeners at a bleak industrial estate on the outskirts of Birmingham on 6 February.

After several months of planning, Lennon having travelled to Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Ireland to help arrange the “coordinated action”, the big day had arrived.

Unfortunately for him, and despite his exaggerations, it turned out to be such a failure that the whole enterprise now hangs in the balance.

Despite all the fanfare, only two of the planned events actually managed to attract numbers of any note. Dresden, the German home of Pegida, saw as many as 8,000 people fill the main square, many fewer than the 20,000 the organisers had expected.

Meanwhile, in Prague, estimates for the attendance ranged wildly from 1,000 to 5,000, for an event organised by the Bloc Against Islam (led by Martin Konvička, and Dawn/Úsvit (led by Miroslav Lidinský).

Low turnout

Despite the events in Dresden and Prague attracting some thousands, there is little doubt that the organisers of the “international day of action”, Lennon chief among them, will have been very disappointed by the turnout at the other demonstrations, not least because a number were either banned or cancelled in the week preceding 6 February.

In France, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve banned all public gatherings in the Prefecture of Calais for fear of violence and the planned event in Saint- Brieuc, Brittany, was also outlawed. Despite the bans, 35 people turned up in Brittany and 150 people in Calais, notably to hear a speech by General Christian Piquemal, a former commander of the French Foreign Legion.

The demonstration ended in scuffles with police resulting in 20 arrests, including Piquemal. The best-attended event in France was in Montpellier where just 350 people attended.

The leader of Pegida-Schweiz, Mike Spielmann, cancelled a planned demonstration in Basel due to safety concerns following announcement of a counter-demonstration by anti-fascists. In the near future, Pegida-Schweiz plans to submit additional requests for events in Aarau, Zürich, Berne and Frauenfeld.

It was not just in Switzerland that opposition groups destroyed Pegida’s plans. In Dublin for example, just days after Lennon had travelled to the city to announce the launch of Pegida Ireland, its small demonstration fled down O’Connell Street, hotly pursued by anti-fascists, and Peter O’Loughlin, chairman of the far-right Identity Ireland, was hospitalised.

Around 200 counter-demonstrators opposed the event held by For Frihed in Copenhagen. This demonstration will also no doubt have been a disappointment to Lennon who had visited the city with Anne Marie Waters and Paul Weston just weeks before to try and build support for it. Just 100 people turned up on the day despite high profile speakers such as Lars Hedegaard, founder of the International Free Press Society and a leading light in the international counter-jihad movement, addressing the crowd. Other speakers included Hans Erling Jensen who founded an Islamophobic website with Nicolai Sennels, founder of Pegida DK, and Gavin Boby the so-called “mosque-buster” from Britain who is the director of the Law and Freedom Foundation.

The Pegida Graz event in Austria saw just 250 people, including members of the fascist Identitarian Movement, show up to hear Werner Wirth of Pegida Styria.

A poorly attended event was held Tallin, Estonia, with several hundred attendees being reported while the Rajat kiinni (Close the Borders) event in Helsinki saw 150 protestors, outnumbered by a counter-demonstration by Ei rasismia minun nimissäni (No racism in my name).

Another Finnish demonstration was held in Seinäjoki with the speakers at the demonstration including MP Teuvo Hakkarainen from the Finns Party and James Hirvisaari from the nationalist Suomen Sisu.

PEGIDA march in Dresden, Germany December 2014. Photo Caruso Pinguin from flickr

In Amsterdam, a pitiful 70 people were left disconsolate after a suspect package caused the event to be moved, leaving the Pegida supporters unable to set up stage before being escorted away on buses.

The planned rally in Bratislava, Slovakia, was also a flop, its billed speaker, Siegfried Däbritz from Pegida in Germany, withdrawing to step in and address the crowd in Dresden where Lutz Bachmann had cancelled due to illness. Just over 100 people turned up to the event organised by Velka narodna a proruska koalicia (Odvaha).

Outside Europe, the few Pegida-linked events that did happen failed to buck the trend of abysmal turnouts. A Reclaim Australia event, held in Canberra, actually kicked off the day of “global protests” due to the time difference but saw just 250 people attend. In Canada, the numbers were excruciatingly embarrassing with just 15 people in Montreal and 11 in Toronto.

Tensions inside the right

In a number of countries, attempts to form domestic franchises of Pegida have been severely hampered by existing nationalist or far-right parties who have sought to scupper or undermine the formation of what they are intent on preventing from becoming a competitor.

This is most evident in Poland where a planned Pegida Polska demonstration in Wroclaw was hurriedly cancelled after the far-right Radical Nationalist Camp (Oboz Narodowo-Radykalny – ONR) threatened to sabotage an event it deemed a “German import”.

While the Pegida Polska event in Wroclaw was scrapped, a demonstration in Warsaw organised by the far-right Ruch Narodowy party went ahead with one of the speakers being Tatjana Festerling from Pegida in Germany.

The event, which saw 2,000 people attend, shows that some existing far-right and nationalist groups, while hostile to the formation of Pegida in their own country, are happy to accommodate leading individuals from Pegida in Germany.

This is also the case in Belgium, where the far-right nationalist party, Vlaams Belang, has been reticent to support Pegida in Flanders, seeing it as a potential rival. However, it is more than happy to entertain contact with Pegida in Dresden. The same is true in Austria where the Freedom Party of Austria sees Pegida Germany as a potentially beneficial partner but Pegida Austria as a “No, no”.

Whether as a result of attempts to undermine the launch of Pegida by the established far right or other contributing factors, it is clear that the much-anticipated day of coordinated action was a serious failure for the organisers.

Other than Dresden, Prague and Warsaw, the Pegida demonstrations attracted tiny numbers. The failure to attract serious numbers, and the fact that so many events were attended by far-right activists, will be a serious setback for Stephen Lennon and his fellow organisers.