Moderates in the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) suffered a stinging defeat at its annual conference after their candidate failed in his bid to become co-chair of the party.
Georg Pazderski's defeat at the weekend shows that the balance of power within the AfD has shifted decisively towards the party's hard-right, nationalist flank. The former army officer is head of the Berlin branch of the AfD and is seen as a standard-bearer of its more pragmatic wing.
After Mr Pazderski's defeat, Alexander Gauland, the current head of the AfD's parliamentary group, stepped in. The 76-year-old will now lead the party alongside co-chair Jörg Meuthen. Mr Gauland is a hardliner who caused controversy this summer by saying Germany should be proud of the achievements of its soldiers in two world wars.
The party conference in Hanover took place 10 weeks after the AfD won seats in the Bundestag for the first time. It garnered 13 per cent of the vote at parliamentary elections, making it the third-largest party in the Bundestag after Angela Merkel's conservative bloc and the Social Democrats.
But the party remains controversial. Police deployed water cannons on Saturday to disperse hundreds of left-wing protesters who had converged on Hanover to demonstrate against the party and had tried to block entrances to the conference venue.
The AfD began life four years ago as a protest movement against the euro-zone bailout of Greece. But it has in recent years shifted its focus, campaigning hard against immigration and Islam. The party has harnessed widespread misgivings about Ms Merkel's decision to let more than one million refugees into Germany in 2015-16 to win representation in 14 of the country's 16 regional parliaments.
But the AfD is divided between moderates and hardliners. The split was brought into sharp relief shortly after the Bundestag election when co-chair Frauke Petry, the most recognisable face of the AfD's moderate wing, quit the party.
She had been waging a long-running but ultimately fruitless battle against far-right nationalists in the party. The party vote on Saturday was to fill the position of co-chair vacated when she left the AfD.
Mr Pazderski is disliked by right-wingers in the AfD because of his close ties to Ms Petry and because, like her, he has argued that the party should aim to form alliances with other groups and one day enter government. Hardliners insist the AfD should remain essentially an anti-establishment protest party and stay in opposition.
Mr Pazderski also supported efforts to exclude nationalist firebrand Björn Höcke from the party. Mr Höcke caused outrage this year by describing a tribute to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and saying Germany should stop having to atone for the sins of Nazism.
Mr Pazderski’s bid for the leadership was blocked when right-wingers put forward their own candidate for co-chair, Doris Sayn-Wittgenstein. She rejects the idea of the AfD entering coalitions with other parties and believes Germany should pursue a pro-Russian foreign policy. Her candidacy split the vote, and Mr Pazderski was ultimately forced to withdraw his candidacy.
Mr Gauland, who has frequently insisted he had no ambition to become the AfD’s leader, then put himself forward as a candidate, saying the emerging split was “dangerous for the party”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017