Divisions have started to break out in Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as delegates from the party rejected an appeal by one of their leaders to seek a pragmatic political path instead of turning into a “fundamental opposition” party.
AfD looks set to turn further right after its co-leader, who has struck a more moderate tone of late, suffered a defeat when delegates refused to discuss her motion to shift the party into the “mainstream”.
Support for the party, which attacks Chancellor Angela Merkel for having allowed more than a million migrants into Germany in the last two years, has tumbled in recent months after reaching the mid-teens in opinion polls last year.
Originally founded as an anti-euro party in 2013, the AfD is expected to enter the national parliament for the first time after September’s election but is treated as a pariah by established political parties, which refuse to work with it. Its congress drew thousands of protesters to Cologne on Saturday.
Frauke Petry, the party’s public face and under whose leadership the party has already shifted rightwards, shocked supporters on Wednesday by announcing she would not lead the AfD’s campaign for a September 24 federal election.
She had ruffled feathers internally by proposing that the AfD signal its willingness to join coalitions after elections in 2021 rather than entrenching itself as a “fundamental” force of opposition whose role is largely provocative. Her foes within the party say that division is artificial.
But delegates voted against discussing Petry’s motion or another proposal in which she and others said the AfD should reject “racist, anti-Semitic … and nationalist ideologies”.
Instead, they stressed the need to show unity after months of bitter infighting that have helped drag down its poll ratings to less than 10 percent. Against her advice, they also voted to field a team of national candidates.
Political scientist Hajo Funke said Petry had recently tried to steer the party on a more moderate course but had lost to more radical members like Hoecke and his supporters, leaving the door open to the AfD shifting further right.
“That means the direction now is that they want to integrate positions such as those held by Hoecke and that’s a racial radical right-wing position,” Funke said, adding that would make it less attractive to voters.
Petry said the AfD had made a “mistake” in refusing to discuss her motion on its future direction because it was “exactly this lack of strategy” that was behind much of its historic internal strife.
Addressing the congress, Petry’s co-leader Joerg Meuthen was applauded for saying the AfD would never form an alliance with those like Merkel, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz or the Greens, whose pro-migrant stances were wrecking Germany.
Up to 15,000 protesters demonstrated against the AfD’s meeting in Cologne, a police spokesman said. Two police officers were injured and a police car was set ablaze.
Petry became co-leader of the four-year-old AfD in 2015. She ousted fellow founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, shifting the party’s focus from economic issues to immigration and Islam.
AfD’s poll ratings soared with the influx of migrants to Germany in late 2015 and early 2016. However, they have sagged in recent months as the issue faded from headlines and the party became increasingly mired in infighting with Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell on one side against other senior figures even further on the right.
Petry, 41, also irked some rivals by leading an effort to expel Bjoern Hoecke, AfD’s regional leader in eastern Thuringia state, after he suggested that Germany stop acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past.