With Greece’s membership in the euro zone in question after the country’s voters resoundingly rejected further austerity measures on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her euro policy reduced to shambles.
Though a growing chorus of German voices is now calling for Greece to leave the currency union, Ms. Merkel need not fear much of a domestic political challenge, as the country’s leading euroskeptic party has descended into internecine fighting following a lurch to the right last weekend.
The upstart party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded a few years ago amid German opposition to bailing out supposedly spendthrift euro-zone countries such as Greece. But the emergence of a party to the ideological right of Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats also quickly became a new home for many right-wing populists with xenophobic tendencies.
Now, instead of trying to capitalize on the current chaos in the currency union, the party has been effectively dismembering itself in a brutal leadership struggle.
Frauke Petry, a right-wing populist, won the battle for the AfD’s heart and soul at a party congress in the industrial German city of Essen, ousting chairman and co-founder Bernd Lucke by a wide margin. Afterwards, many of Mr. Lucke’s fellow fiscal conservatives and euroskeptics announced they would leave the party.
“The party has chosen a sharply far-right course of vulgarity, protest and the promotion of prejudice,” Hans-Olaf Henkel, an AfD member of the European Parliament and former head of the BDI Federation of German Industry, told Handelsblatt.
Though Mr. Henkel confirmed he was renouncing his AfD membership, ex-chairman Mr. Lucke, an economics professor, initially said on Tuesday that he would take time before making any such decision. “I won’t make a kneejerk reaction.”
Mr. Lucke then said in a statement Wednesday that "the party has fallen irretrievably into the wrong hands." He also confirmed that he would, in fact, be leaving the party. German news agency dpa reported that he said he still had not decided whether or not to found a new party.
Of the AfD’s 23,000 party members, some 4,000 backed a push by Mr. Lucke to marginalize Ms. Petry’s populist wing.
Mr. Lucke said he feared the party he helped set up was on its way to become a far-right populist group along the lines of France’s National Front.
After her victory Ms. Petry rejected the AfD was shifting to the right and made a pitch for economic conservatives like Mr. Lucke to remain in the party. “It would be shame if he left the party in a huff now,” she told Deutschlandfunk radio on Monday.
But she has not shied from stoking xenophobic sentiments and tapping Germany’s anti-Muslim protest movement Pegida in the past. At the party congress the 40-year-old chemist from Saxony received the strongest applause for her claim that "a religion like Islam" did not fit with German democracy during her speech.
Mr. Lucke, on the other hand, was booed by some of the 3,500 AfD members in Essen after urging tolerance toward Germany’s Muslim citizens.
“There’s a clear lurch to the right within the party,” said political expert Oskar Niedermayer from Berlin’s Free University.
He pointed to the rise of ultra-conservatives such as Alexander Gauland, party head in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, and the European parliamentarian Beatrix von Storch into the upper echelons of the AfD’s leadership as evidence of this. Ms. von Storch not only opposes German membership in the euro, she also wants Germany to leave the European Union.
Mr. Niedermayer said the AfD had failed to tap frustrations in German society about Greece and immigration and turn it into political capital. “The whole world is discussing refugees and the euro,” he said, pointing out that the AfD had still slipped in opinion polls.
Instead of scoring political points against Germany’s mainstream parties for their support for the Greek bailout, the AfD could now fade into irrelevance on the far-right of the country’s political spectrum.
Of the AfD’s 23,000 party members, some 4,000 backed a push by Mr. Lucke to marginalize Ms. Petry’s populist wing. Now that she has taken control of the party, that bloc could break away.
Ulrike Trebesius, another AfD member of the European Parliament who announced she would not remain in the party, said it remained to be seen if the pro-Lucke fraction departed en masse or not. Mr. Lucke recently set up an offshoot group within the party, called "Wake Up Call 2015" to band together his supporters.
“Whether we quit the AfD together, or go into hibernation in the AfD, or form an entirely new party will be decided in the coming days,” Ms. Trebesius said.
This story was updated Wednesday to include the fact that Mr. Lucke resigned from the AfD. Handelsblatt Global Edition editor Marc Young authored the article, using reporting by Berlin correspondent Donata Riedel. To contact: [email protected] and [email protected]