Germany’s AfD in meltdown as leader exits election campaign
Frauke Petry shocks right-wing party by saying she does not wish to lead election battle
Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), photographed in March 2016. File photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) hoped its weekend party conference in Cologne would agree a programme and set a course for entering the Bundestag after September’s federal election.
Instead, the intrigue-ridden party is in chaos, with open warfare between the party’s liberal-conservative and nationalist wings, topped by calls for the resignation of the party’s front woman.
Frauke Petry, a controversial vote-winner from the eastern state of Saxony, shocked the party by announcing on Wednesday that she was not interested in leading the party’s election campaign.
The move was seen as a strategic withdrawal before a looming party conference defeat, with the party’s two main warring groups united only in their open hatred of the pregnant mother of four.
The 41-year-old Petry rose to prominence in 2015, ousting AfD founder Bernd Lucke and his euro bailout critique, to push an anti-immigration and anti-Islam line.
It was a strategic shift that yielded instant results amid a refugee crisis that brought almost 900,000 people to Germany. Subsequent security concerns and a series of terrorist attacks saw AfD support soar to 15 per cent in polls last year.
A series of state election wins saw the party enter half of Germany’s 16 federal state parliaments, riding a far-right populist wave around Europe. But growing success stoked vicious personality clashes and fundamental policy disagreements in the AfD. Those tensions, dwindling refugee concerns and a series of neo-Nazi scandals have seen support drop back to about 10 per cent.
Five months before Germany’s federal election on September 24th, Petry’s latest move has aggravated rather than resolved these tensions.
In a draft party conference motion, she demanded the AfD should drop its populist, “fundamental opposition” philosophy and be ready to enter governing coalitions in the long term.
“Too many of us fail to recognise ... that we need a common strategy,” she wrote in the motion. “The AfD’s image has repeatedly been marked by unco-ordinated ... maximum provocations of a few representatives.”
Her demand for moderation infuriated the party’s western German liberal conservative wing, who count Petry among the party’s greatest provocateurs.
She pushed the AfD’s strategy of anti-Islam, anti-immigrant “targeted provocations” to build profile and support, they say, including her now notorious claim that German law allowed border police to shoot illegal immigrants.
Despite considerable tactical skill, Petry found herself trapped between the more conservative, western German AfD and the nationalist, racist figures in the east, lead by Björn Höcke.
Höcke, party leader in the eastern state of Thüringia, faces an uncertain future in the party after repeated controversial pronouncements, most recently a speech demanding an end to post-war Germany’s “cult of guilt” over Nazi-era crimes.
Rather than be squeezed between the AfD’s warring factions, analysts suggest Petry stood aside with a view to a comeback after having her fifth baby in the summer. Such a comeback is likely if the party struggles to find a convincing replacement for her, and pulls in a disappointing result in September.
‘Decision is final’
Her second husband Marcus Pretzell, an MEP whom she married last year, insisted on Friday that his wife’s withdrawal from the election was not a strategic move, saying her “decision is final”.
But party insiders say Petry may have miscalculated the fury inside the party, suggesting her latest shift has shut her out of any role in a future AfD Bundestag parliamentary party.
“A party leader who refuses to participate in the leadership team for such an important election has given up her entitlement to lead,” said Armin Paul Hampel, member of the AfD board, to Saturday’s Der Spiegel magazine.