The populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) moved further to the extreme Right on Sunday when it named a man widely accused of racism as its candidate for chancellor.
The AfD was forced to apologise last year after Alexander Gauland claimed no German would want to live next door to Jérôme Boateng, one of the country’s best known footballers.
But on Sunday the 76-year-old was chosen by delegates at the party conference as one of two joint chancellor candidates in September’s elections.
Mr Gauland was named alongside Alice Weidel, a less well known party figure who last year accused Angela Merkel of being personally responsible for the rape and murder of a young woman by an Afghan refugee.
The choice amounted to a potentially fatal blow to the authority of Frauke Petry, the part leader, who had called for the AfD to abandon its populist image and join the political mainstream.
“We want to keep our home country, keep our identity, and we are proud to be German,” a triumphant Mr Gauland told cheering delegates at the party conference in Cologne, as a disconsolate Mrs Petry looked on.
“If we stick together now and fight together, then finally a true opposition party can be get into the German Parliament,” Ms Weidel said in her acceptance speech.
But opinion polls suggest both Mr Gauland and Ms Weidel are much less popular with ordinary voters than Mrs Petry, and that the AfD will have a struggle on its hands.
The party has seen its support in the opinion polls fall from a high of 16 per cent last September to just 9 per cent amid the infighting.
Mr Gauland in particular is a polarising figure in Germany for his public outbursts. As well as his remarks aboyt Mr Boateng, he has claimed the national football team has “not been German for a long time”, and spoken out against Mesut Özil, a Muslm player, for making the pilgrinage to Mecca.
He called for a ban on Muslims entering Germany earlier this year, and last year said: “Not everyone who holds a German passport is German”.
The less well known Ms Weidel is seen as a relative moderate within the AfD, and appears to have been nominated to placate party members alarmed by the choice of Mr Gauland.
Beatrix von Storch, a key ally of Mr Gauland’s who was expected to serve as party of a three-member top team, appears to have been discarded.
The vote was a disaster for Mrs Petry, who had thrown down the gauntlet to her rivals by refusing to serve as chancellor candidate, challenging them to risk fighting an election without her.
A triumphant Mr Gauland offered her an olive branch on Sunday, telling her: “We still need you in the party”.
Though she remains party leader, her authority will be challenged by the rival leadership team of Mr Gauland and Ms Weidel who will now dominate the election campaign.
It was under Mrs Petry’s leadership that the AfD was transformed from a fringe Eurosceptic party into a populist force that was seen for much of last year as the main challenge to Mrs Merkel.
But Mrs Petry, who seized power from the party founder, Bernd Lucke, in a right-wing coup, now appears to have been sidelined in the same manner.