Six hundred delegates on Sunday ended any discussion of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party swerving into the mainstream to snatch more votes in the September federal election when they picked nationalist tactician Alexander Gauland as one of two leaders to steer the anti-immigration party’s campaign further to the right.
The other top candidate, the 38-year-old business consultant and economist Alice Weidel, told delegates the AfD would “not be forced to keep its mouth shut” on topics such as immigration, adding that “political correctness belongs to the waste heap of history.” She urged Turks in Germany who recently voted in a controversial referendum to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping powers, to go and live in Turkey.
The populist right-wing party agreed to a campaign program platform that focuses heavily on stemming immigration into Germany and halting the spread of Islam in the country. It hopes to cash in on public anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open-door” policy toward refugees, especially from North Africa, that has seen more than 1.5 million migrants enter the country since 2015.
The program also calls for returning centralized European Union powers to the national level, abandoning the euro in favor of the Deutsche Mark and supporting traditional nuclear families as well as radically lowering taxes and abandoning alternative energy policies, among others.
I know how hard yesterday must have been for you, but we need you in the party. Alexander Gauland, AfD candidate, speaking to co-chairwoman Frauke Petry
The highly anticipated showdown between AfD co-chair Frauke Petry, who has been advocating a moderate course, and the more radical members including Mr. Gauland, AfD co-chairman Jörg Meuthen and senior party member Björn Höcke, never happened.
Ms. Petry was more or less sidelined from the start of the two-day congress, which drew thousands of protesters to Cologne. The 41-year old chemist from the former communist East Germany suffered a humiliating defeat on Saturday when delegates refused to discuss her “realpolitik” motion to turn the party into a potential coalition partner for Germany’s mainstream parties.
Three days ahead of the party congress, Ms. Petry, the most recognizable face of the AfD, surprised supporters when she announced via a Facebook video that she would not lead the party in the September 24 general elections, calling on members to reject racist and nationalist ideologies and consider party alliances.
At the party congress, Mr. Meuthen drew thundering applause when he demanded the complete opposite; the AfD, he said, must position itself as a fundamental force of opposition to established parties. In his speech, he did not mince words, using sharp anti-immigration rhetoric. "Germany is our country," he said, and "we now have to take it back.”
After her crushing rejection in Cologne, Ms. Petry’s future in the party is all but certain. She is now a party chairwoman without a party behind her.
Mr. Gauland, 76, who held various positions in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Chrisitian Democratic Union party, extended an olive-branch to Ms. Petry on Sunday when he said: “I know how hard yesterday must have been for you, but we need you in the party.” Many of her supporters immediately shouted “Frauke, Frauke.”
Should Ms. Petry remain co-chair and run as the party’s candidate for Saxony, she would become a member of Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
The AfD, which already has opposition footholds in 11 of Germany’s 16 state governments, is expected to clear the 5-percent hurdle needed for representation in the federal parliament – the first time since it was formed in 2013. In national polls, support for the right-wing party has been as high as 15 percent, but has dipped into the single-digits in recent months, largely because of the internal power struggles that have worried many voters.
Speculation is rife that Ms. Petry may wait until after the federal elections to grab supporters and create a new faction within the AfD or even a new party. Asked about this possibility in an interview with the ARD public broadcaster on Sunday evening, she avoided a straight answer, saying only she would support the two candidates in the fall election, and admitted to an “unusual situation in the party.”
In an earlier interview with the n-tv station, however, Ms. Petry was more candid: “I'll watch everything until fall.”
The party leader may have already accepted she’s fighting a losing battle against the party’s radical far-right wing and needs to find an alternative party of another kind.
Mr. Gauland caused a stir ahead of the European soccer tournament in 2016 when he said Germans like the national team player Jerome Boateng, whose father is Ghanaian, but do not necessarily want “to live next door to someone like him.”
Mr. Höcke, the regional party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, made the headlines in January with a jarring remark about the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. “Germans," he said, "are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”
Statements like these are music to the ears of the AfD's extreme-right backers and appear not to scare away Germans from other camps. The party has siphoned off supporters from all of Germany's mainstream parties including the CDU, the Social Democratic Party and the Greens.
Many political experts see its rise as part of the international trend toward populism that saw Brits vote to leave the European Union and Americans elect Donald Trump as president.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]