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Germans leftists use cartoon stork to fight far-right ahead of state elections
BERLIN (AP) ' He sports a toothbrush mustache and parts his black hair to the side. But don't let this cartoon stork's resemblance to Adolf Hitler fool you ' he's out to defeat the far right.
The goggling eyes of Storch Heinar, or Heinar the Stork, stare down over his long, mustachioed beak from thousands of posters plastered around Germany's northeastern coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which elects a new legislature Sunday.
Five years ago, the far-right National Democratic Party, or NPD, won six seats in sparsely populated Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, only the second time it has been represented in a state legislature. Tourism leaders fear another successful NPD showing could scare away visitors to the state, a top German tourist destination, and further damage its struggling economy.
So they have teamed up with the stork's creators to send a clear message: "Don't Vote for Nazis."
"We want to demonstrate that it is not important to us where our guests come from, what color their skin is, or their religion ' we are open to all guests," said Uwe Barsewitz, head of the state's association of hotel and restaurant owners, following a rally by his group, in the seaside resort of Warnemuende.
Storch Heinar was originally hatched in 2008 by members of a group that fights the far right and is linked to the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, which heads Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's state government. The bird was initially meant to combat the rise in popularity of a fashion label popular with neo-Nazis, Thor Steinar.
When a Nuremberg court ruled in favor of the stork over the clothing maker in 2010, Heinar's popularity took off, sparking a band, "Storchkraft," or "Stork Power," and a biography, "Mein Krampf," or "My Cramp" ' a play on the name of Hitler's infamous manifesto "Mein Kampf," or "My Struggle." Heinar also now boasts a T-shirt line of his own.
The stork's involvement in the election campaign began last month, when Rostock hotel owner Benjamin Weiss grew fed up with a forest of placards from the NPD that greeted guests with the slogan, "Tourists Welcome ' Foreigners Out!"
He started to worry that his business, and regional tourism in general could suffer if the NPD wins the 5 percent of the vote it needs to get back into the state parliament. Current polls suggest that is uncertain.
More than 42,000 people have jobs in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's tourism industry, which brings in an average of euro5.1 billion annually. Since 1990 reunification the state's rough natural coastline, white sand beaches and many lakes have made it one of Germany's most popular vacation destinations.
Recent years also have seen a jump in Scandinavian tourists coming ashore from Baltic Sea cruise ships and others visiting from neighboring Austria and Switzerland.
"I don't think any of us want to see a TV report about a Nazi party making it into the state legislature," Weiss said in a statewide call of support to hotel owners across the state.
Drawing in Barsewitz and funding from his own pocket, Weiss teamed with Storch Heinar's creators to draw up satirical placards which they posted within inches of those sponsored by the NPD.
"The stork is a symbol of internationalism, it is a migratory bird," Barsewitz said. "It flies to us in the spring and in the fall it leaves, with no regard for borders. It is always welcome. So it was a good symbol for us."
The stork's camp says the NPD responded by trying to remove or deface its posters, but regional NPD lawmaker Stefan Koestner said the bird wasn't bothering it.
"We find the 'stork' to be ridiculous," Koestner wrote in an email seeking comment. He insisted the campaign had "not caused trouble of any kind for us with this poster."
The NPD holds seats in one other state, Saxony, but none in Germany's national parliament. Nevertheless, it is a perennial source of concern. The German government has accused it of inciting hate crimes, but an attempt to ban the party in 2003 was blocked by the nation's highest court.
Barsewitz said he has been overwhelmed by the success of the Storch Heinar campaign.
"We will do everything possible, and whatever it takes, to try to keep the NPD out of (the state) parliament," Barsewitz said. "Our message to people is: Go out and vote, but vote for a democratic party."