The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) on Saturday opened a conference where it was expected that the party would decide on whether to tread a more moderate course or steer to the extreme right.
After a vote on Saturday evening, the relatively moderate candidate Jörg Meuthen emerged victorious in the party’s two-pronged leadership contest, as did compromise candidate Tino Chrupalla.
At a press conference after their victory, Chrupalla disputed the idea that the AfD used incendiary rhetoric to win votes, saying “we have used reason” to gain centrist voters, which “requires no drastic language.”
Meuthen used the moment to revel in the declining support for Germany’s traditional center-left SPD and center-right CDU, saying “we are experiencing the implosion of formerly dominant forces with the simultaneous strenghtening of new forces…I believe that government-building without us will become more and more difficult, until it does not work at all anymore.
The two-day gathering in the city of Braunschweig comes on the heels of state elections in eastern Germany in recent months that saw the AfD surge to second place in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia with more than 20% of the vote.
Read more: AfD: What you need to know about Germany’s far-right party
The opening of the conference was met with massive protests, with locals shouting “all of Germany hates the AfD” and “no place for Nazis.”
The protesters were estimated to number some 20,000, “a clear sign that no one in Braunschweig wants the AfD here,” said Udo Sommerfeld, a spokesman for the demonstration’s organizers.
Despite recent successes at the ballot box, the AfD is riven by personal and ideological rivalries over which direction it should maneuver now that it is the third-largest party in parliament and represented in all 16 German states.
Internal power struggles are set to be put on full display in the halls of the conference center, where 600 party delegates, in addition to choosing co-chairs, will also vote on 13 members of the executive committee.
Alexander Gauland, a founding party member and co-leader, is preparing to step down, leading to a scramble to replace one of the most prominent leaders. The 78-year-old also heads the AfD’s faction in the national parliament, the Bundestag.
The party’s other national co-chief, Jörg Meuthen, is considered a moderate and sought to defend his post, a move which was ultimately successful as he secured 69% of the vote on Saturday evening.
An extreme-right faction known as the Wing (Flügel) had been hoping to boost its representation on the executive council and make a bid to swing the leadership in its direction.
The Wing’s influence in the party has been strengthened after two of its key figures — Björn Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz — scored significant electoral victories in regional elections in eastern Germany this year. By some estimates, up to 40% of party members are sympathetic to the Wing, giving them a prominent role choosing the executive council and co-leaders.
Co-chairman Alexander Gauland said the German national soccer team’s defender Jerome Boateng might be appreciated for his performance on the pitch – but people would not want “someone like Boateng as a neighbor.” He also argued Germany should close its borders and said of an image showing a drowned refugee child: “We can’t be blackmailed by children’s eyes.”
Alice Weidel generally plays the role of “voice of reason” for the far-right populists, but she, too, is hardly immune to verbal miscues. Welt newspaper, for instance, published a 2013 memo allegedly from Weidel in which she called German politicians “pigs” and “puppets of the victorious powers in World War II. Weidel initially claimed the mail was fake, but now admits its authenticity.
German border police should shoot at refugees entering the country illegally, the former co-chair of the AfD told a regional newspaper in 2016. Officers must “use firearms if necessary” to “prevent illegal border crossings.” Communist East German leader Erich Honecker was the last German politician who condoned shooting at the border.
The head of the AfD in the state of Thuringia made headlines for referring to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” and calling on the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past. The comments came just as Germany enters an important election year – leading AfD members moved to expel Höcke for his remarks.
Initially, the AfD campaigned against the euro and bailouts – but that quickly turned into anti-immigrant rhetoric. “People who won’t accept STOP at our borders are attackers,” the European lawmaker said. “And we have to defend ourselves against attackers.”
Pretzell, former chairman of the AfD in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and husband to Frauke Petry, wrote “These are Merkel’s dead,” shortly after news broke of the deadly attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016.
The member of parliament in Germany’s eastern state of Saxony made waves in early 2016 with an inquiry into how far the state covers the cost of sterilizing unaccompanied refugee minors. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Germany, according to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees (BumF) — the vast majority of them young men.
Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, has also raised eyebrows with extreme remarks. In February 2017, he urged other lawmakers in the state parliament to join measures against the extreme left-wing in order to “get rid of, once and for all, this rank growth on the German racial corpus” — the latter term clearly derived from Nazi terminology.
During a campaign speech in Eichsfeld in August 2017, AfD election co-candidate Alexander Gauland said that Social Democrat parliamentarian Aydan Özoguz should be “disposed of” back to Anatolia. The German term, “entsorgen,” raised obvious parallels to the imprisonment and killings of Jews and prisoners of war under the Nazis.
Gauland was roundly criticized for a speech he made to the AfD’s youth wing in June 2018. Acknowledging Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, he went on to say Germany had a “glorious history and one that lasted a lot longer than those damned 12 years. Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”
The Brandenburg state AfD chief admitted in 2019 to attending a 2007 rally in Greece by the ultranationalist Golden Dawn party at which a swastika flag was raised. “Der Spiegel” had published a leaked report by the German embassy in Athens naming him as one of “14 neo-Nazis” who arrived from Germany for the far-right rally. Kalbitz released a statement saying he took part out of “curiosity.”
Read more: What drives the far-right AfD’s success in eastern Germany?
Founded in 2013, initially as an economically euroskeptic party, the AfD has drifted to the right as it seized on the 2015 refugee crisis to promote an anti-Islam, anti-foreigner and pro-family program. Despite scoring above 20% in eastern Germany, it has stalled nationwide at about 13-15%.
Moderates within the party want to appeal to a broader political base and disgruntled voters by shedding its far-right image in a bid to capture support from other parties, particularly the ruling conservative Christian Democrats and their center-left Social Democrat coalition partners.
The battle over the future direction of the AfD is not only a strategic question, but an existential one.
It comes as Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has put some local AfD offices under further scrutiny. There is great concern within the party that its national associations could be put under observation if it swings too far to the extreme right.
cw,es/rc (AFP, dpa)