15 January 2024, Berlin: The Victory Column and tractors are reflected in a large puddle. Hundreds of trucks are also expected at the end of the farmers' action week. The protests are directed against planned subsidy cuts by the federal government, including for agricultural diesel. Photo by: Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Berlin, Germany CNN  — 

Berlin has nearly been brought to a standstill as thousands of farmers rally against tax rises and subsidy cuts, the culmination of a week of protests that have piled misery on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition.

Streets leading to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate were clogged with trucks and tractors on Monday, as more than 10,000 farmers descended on the capital in conjunction with the German freight industry, police said.

Multiple other protests are planned across the country, which come as Scholz’s coalition struggles to fix a budget crisis and official data showed Germany’s economy shrank last year for the first time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, many are warning that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is capitalizing on the chaos for its own political gain.

Farmers demonstrate against government plans to scrap diesel tax subsidies for agriculture vehicles in Frankfurt, western Germany, on January 11, 2024. Farmers have been up in arms over government plans to withdraw tax breaks for the agricultural sector. The government already partially walked back the planned subsidy cuts. A discount on vehicle tax for agriculture would remain in place, while a diesel subsidy would be phased out over several years instead of being abolished immediately, the government said. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

In the shadow of the iconic Brandenburg Gate, a convoy of up to 500 tractors lined up every day last week in freezing pre-dawn temperatures. To keep themselves warm, farmers lit fires and drank hot mugs of tea and coffee.

Major road blockages have stretched across cities from east to west including Hamburg, Cologne, Bremen, Nuremberg and Munich – with up to 2,000 tractors registered for each protest. Images showed convoys of tractors and trucks, some with protest banners, blocking German roads from the early-morning hours.

Outside cities, Germany’s fast-moving motorways have also been targeted by protesters, severely disrupting the flow of traffic.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 08: Protesting farmers have breakfast among their tractors and trucks while blocking Strasse des 17. Juni street on the first day of a week of protests on January 08, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. Farmers are protesting across Germany this week against proposed government measures that would reduce federal benefits for the agricultural sector. While the coalition government recently stepped back from some of the measures, including a proposed taxation of agricultural vehicles and cutting agricultural fuel subsidies, farmers have vowed to press on with their protests in order to stop any measures from being enacted at all. The government is seeking to save EUR 100 million in its agriculture budget. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 08: A man walks past the tractors of protesting farmers and a banner with the logos of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party that reads: "Germany Needs New Elections!" on the first day of a week of protests on January 08, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. Farmers are protesting across Germany this week against proposed government measures that would reduce federal benefits for the agricultural sector. While the coalition government recently stepped back from some of the measures, including a proposed taxation of agricultural vehicles and cutting agricultural fuel subsidies, farmers have vowed to press on with their protests in order to stop any measures from being enacted at all. The government is seeking to save EUR 100 million in its agriculture budget. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Farmers are enraged about government austerity plans, which would cut tax breaks for agriculture.

Protesters on Monday booed German Finance Minister Christian Lindner, as he tried to tell them, “I hear you, and this is an impressive scene.”

At one point, Lindner was interrupted by the president of the farmers union Joachim Rukwied, who urged the crowd to listen to the minister.

CNN spoke to farmers on the ground, who warned the new economic measures will drive them out of business.

“I am here to protest for a new election in this country, because we are in difficulties with our government,” Martin, a farmer from Rügen who was protesting in Berlin, said. “They don’t hear us, they make regulations that harm every one of us, not only the farmers but everyone in this country. And we think enough is enough.”

Steven, a farmer from Western Pomerania who did not give his last name, said: “All the farmers standing here are worried about their livelihoods, about the livelihoods of farmers… This will only stop if the government resigns and there are other solutions.”

Scholz’s government sparked a backlash in December when it made unexpected changes to a 2024 budget draft, modifying some of its planned subsidy cuts on January 4. Farmers say this doesn’t go far enough, however, and are calling for a complete reversal.

Germany’s AfD party has increasingly made its presence felt at this week’s demonstrations.

Some of the tractors have been adorned with AfD posters, reading “Our farmers first” and “Germany needs new elections.” Far-right supporters wearing AfD vests could also be seen standing next to the vehicles.

On social media, the AfD’s official Facebook page has been reposting images from the protests and writing messages of solidarity with the demonstrators.

“Supporting democratic protests like this against traffic light madness will continue to be a concern of our hearts,” one post reads.

“We will stay with you on the road, so that a policy for tax breaks, for supporting our agriculture and for the interests of our own citizens is finally made. The traffic light will soon be standing all alone.”

The “traffic light” is a reference to Scholz’s coalition government – an allusion to the colors of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens it is comprised of.

On his personal Facebook page, the controversial leader of the AfD in the Eastern German state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, launched an appeal: “Fellow citizens, we will see you on the roads!”. The far-right politician is classified an extremist by Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Other images shared on social media showed members of right-wing extremist groups including The Homeland and Third Way, as well as the AfD, attending a rally in Berlin. In Dresden, a video showed people with flags from the right-wing Free Saxony party clashing with police.

Scholz, meanwhile, failed to address the nationwide demonstrations the entire week. While attending a ceremonial commissioning of a new Deutsche Bahn maintenance depot – Germany’s main rail operator – in the city of Cottbus on Thursday, the Chancellor was met with angry protesters.

He refused to engage with them and did not directly address the unrest in a speech he gave at the event – a move which has caused further outrage among farmers who don’t believe their voice is being heard by the federal government.

Polarization using existing rifts

For Johannes Kiess, a sociologist specializing in right-wing extremism at the University of Leipzig in eastern Germany, the AfD’s involvement in the unrest doesn’t come as a surprise.

He points out that although the AfD’s own manifesto does not support the interests of Germany’s farmers, the far-right party has a history of exploiting division.

“The AfD is trying to fuel the debate further in order to damage the image of democratic institutions and processes, and most importantly the current government,” Kiess told CNN.

“To this end, it tries to increase the polarization using existing cleavages like rural versus urban.”

He continues: “The AfD used the Eurozone crisis as a window of opportunity to get started in the first place. Activists from the far-right were literally waiting for such an opportunity and with the so-called refugee crisis in 2015 they got a second crisis that helped them grow considerably.

“Migration is known as the bread-and-butter-issue for the far-right. Since then, the AfD has indeed used every crisis to fuel polarization, for example the pandemic, the war against Ukraine. Sometimes it works well, sometimes not.”

TOPSHOT - Picture taken with a drone shows farmers on their tractors driving past Hartenfels Castle and crossing the river Elbe in Torgau, eastern Germany, as they take part in protests against the federal government's austerity plans, on early January 8, 2024. Farmers have been up in arms over government plans to withdraw tax breaks for the agricultural sector. The government already partially walked back the planned subsidy cuts. A discount on vehicle tax for agriculture would remain in place, while a diesel subsidy would be phased out over several years instead of being abolished immediately, the government said. The agriculture sector however said the move did not go far enough and urged the government to completely reverse the plans, announced after a shock court ruling forced the government to find savings in the budget for 2024. (Photo by JENS SCHLUETER / AFP) (Photo by JENS SCHLUETER/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Kiess, the AfD has a clear market-liberal stance advocating for the abolishment of all kinds of subsidies, including those for farmers, directly flying in the face of what the farmers are protesting for.

“And they are against climate friendly subsidies in particular, which could help farmers transform their businesses to make them environmentally and economically more sustainable.