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Politicians are facing increasing attacks in the run-up to a new European parliament

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Voting for the European Union's Parliament wraps up today, and it's been a campaign season marked by violence - an attack in Slovakia, a beating in Germany, just Friday, a body check to Denmark's prime minister, who had just been campaigning with her party's leading EU candidate. As Willem Marx reports, extremist rhetoric online may be to blame. And heads up, you'll hear some gunshots in about 10 seconds.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: As Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, greeted passersby behind a metal barrier in mid-May, several shots suddenly rang out.

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MARX: Bodyguards bundled his slumped body into a vehicle and raced to the ER. Police pinned his assailant to the floor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: The attacks shocked Europe - the leader of an EU government left fighting for his life. Fico has since then recovered slowly, and with his country deeply polarized, he now blames his political opponents for the actions of a 71-year-old shooter. The incident raised questions not just about his personal security, though, but the level of anger directed against politicians across the continent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: Just two weeks later, in Germany, an immigrant from Afghanistan stabbed members of a self-described anti-Islam movement.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: The man fought several police with his blade, before himself being shot. Also in May, four teenagers had attacked another German politician, a center-left member of the European Parliament who ended up in hospital, evidence such violence cuts across political lines.

These incidents may not seem related, but experts say several common but complex factors are driving attacks against politicians. They include the internet and increased migration and now a Middle East conflict that echoes across European cities, too. Online, the pervasive presence of right-wing extremism has changed the way attackers choose their targets, says Jacob Ravndal, an associate professor at Norway's Police University College.

JACOB RAVNDAL: The far right has a more individual-oriented targeting. In that sense, also, they are not necessarily going for mass-casualty attacks, although a few have, but there's also been these much more targeted attacks, punishing politicians for their liberal immigration policies, for instance.

MARX: He says online communities form a crucial component.

RAVNDAL: Definitely contributes to the targeting process. So who's ending up as the targets? There, I think social media plays an important role, both in the attacks targeting politicians but also more generally, who are seen as sort of legitimate target groups.

MARX: In the past two months, poice in Hungary, France and Sweden have foiled potential terror plots. But Germany is at the center of this seeming spike in political victims of violence, in part because of its past.

JAN RATHJE: Germany has a special history because of its ties to national socialism, as well as the horrific deeds that Germans did in the Second World War.

MARX: Jan Rathje researches right-wing German nationalism at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy and says the more recent German history of welcoming migrants could be one reason a tiny fraction of extremists do now take angry action against elected officials.

RATHJE: We have an increase also in hate speech, racist hate speech, anti-immigration hate speech online. And this might be something that is connected to people perceiving migration as an existential threat to their existence and the existence of Germany, which might lead them to violent acts.

MARX: As a war of aggression in Ukraine rages on at Europe's border, inside this democratic continent, societal conflicts over ideas and identity no longer simply clash in the political realm but sometimes in the real, physical world of blood and bullets, too. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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