Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to lurch further to the right at its party conference this weekend after its last self-declared moderates conceded defeat to hardliners, and former members warned that regional branches were being “flooded by the far far right”.
The AfD, which was launched in 2013 by a group of academics and liberal economists, used to emphatically reject the “rightwing populist” tag, insisting that its Euroscepticism was relatively mild and Germany needed immigration due to its demographic decline.
Only four years later, the party’s transformation into an openly xenophobic, nationalist political group looks complete. On Wednesday, the AfD co-leader Frauke Petry – a former chemist who sees herself as representative of the party’s “realist” wing – announced via a video message on her Facebook page that she would not run as her party’s candidate in the September elections, citing the lack of a coherent strategy and expressing frustration with her party colleagues’ course of “maximum provocation”.
Petry, who presided over a rightward lurch and the ousting of the AfD founder, Bernd Lucke, in 2015 has been fighting a battle to expel the party’s firebrand agitator Björn Höcke over his call for a “180-degree turn” from the postwar tradition of atoning for the crimes of the Nazi era.
But her effort to remove Höcke only ended up shoring up his support and Wednesday’s withdrawal amounts to Petry deserting the stage for a far right takeover.
Party insiders claim that while only about 25% of the AfD’s members are openly supportive of Höcke staying in the party, regional associations of almost half of Germany’s 16 federal states are now run by his allies.
“Ladies and gentlemen, do you remember why you have joined the AfD since 2013?” a visibly exhausted Petry asked in her video. “Probably not because you had too much time on your hands and wanted to work yourself into the ground over internal issues.”
Andreas Strixner, 31, joined the Eurosceptic party within weeks of its foundation. A self-described “conservative who swings between conservative and liberal views depending on the subject”, he was enthused by the AfD’s criticism of EU overreach and calls for Swiss-style direct democracy. He soon rose to become the party’s district chair in Freising-Pfaffenhofen.
But last summer he felt that an aggressive minority of racists and conspiracy theorists were beginning to dominate the party’s meetings, and on 28 March he cancelled his membership.
If openly far-right politicians used to represent the AfD mainly in the former East German states, such as Saxony and Thuringia, Strixner argues they also now have a growing influence in Bavaria, Germany’s largest state.
“It was an eye-opener to realise that the most radical district associations have the fastest growth in membership and that, especially, applications to those associations who fervently support Höcke have a high rate of former members of [rightwing extremist and ultranationalist parties] Reps, Die Freiheit, DVU and NPD,” Strixner said. “These people flooding in are not just rightwing, they are far-far-right.”
While Petry’s withdrawal from running as the AfD’s candidate will shift the party’s centre of power further to the right, it may have temporarily averted a split.
Melanie Amann, a journalist for the weekly Der Spiegel and author of the book Angst für Deutschland (Fear for Germany), described Petry’s announcement as a “judo move”, in which she had managed to use her enemies’ momentum against them, forcing the party’s hardliners to come up with their own strategy and candidates.
If Petry managed to hold on to co-leadership and the AfD underperformed at the federal elections, Amann suggested, the party’s most recognisable face could prepare a comeback in 2018.
Having regularly polled at 15% at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, the party has dipped below 10% in recent surveys, but could still become the third-biggest political group in the next parliament – a first in German postwar history.
The AfD is due to elect its candidate line-up at this weekend’s party conference in Cologne, where police are preparing for tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to protest against the party.
Candidates mooted as possible replacements to fill Petry’s shoes include Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old former member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and Alice Weidel, a former Goldman Sachs economist.
If a party split looks unlikely before the German federal elections on 24 September, preparations behind the scenes suggest it is not entirely off the cards. Two separate political foundations tied to the AfD have recently been registered in Germany: the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, which is associated with the party’s rightwing, and the Immanuel Kant Foundation, which was registered by members of Petry’s circle.
Once the AfD has entered the German parliament, the party would be able to draw state subsidies through one of the registered foundations – a system of financing political parties that the rightwing populist party has criticised in the past.
The Immanuel Kant Foundation also faces another problem: named after the 18th-century philosopher and father of the German enlightenment, it shares a name with a foundation dedicated to “human rights, democracy and the environment”, founded in Freiburg in 2004.
The Freiburg Kant Foundation’s spokesperson, Berthold Lange, said it was consulting lawyers about applying to the patent court to ban the AfD from using the same name.