Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been a thorn in the side of Chancellor Angela Merkel ever since it formed two years ago. And one of its leaders, Frauke Petry, could push the party in a more populist direction, making it an even bigger headache.
If Ms. Petry can tap into the anti-immigrant sentiment that gave rise to the Pegida movement late last year, she could create a force on the right that could draw away conservatives disillusioned with Ms. Merkel's move to the center.
However, tensions within the party about its future direction could also see it lose support.
The AfD calls for breaking up the euro zone and opposes Germany’s asylum policies – populist positions that have helped it poach support from the right of Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
In the 2013 federal election, the AfD fell just short of the 5-percent threshold for entering parliament.
But it has achieved considerable success since then, winning seats in the European Parliament and in four German state assemblies – including in the eastern state of Saxony, where the AfD has shown support for the xenophobic grassroots movement Pegida. Ms. Merkel has accused Pegida – or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – as having “hatred in their hearts.”
Until recently, most pundits predicted that the AfD would make it into parliament in the 2017 general election. But the party has been losing support because of a power struggle between its leader Bernd Lucke, a 52-year-old economics professor at Hamburg University, and a faction that includes co-leader Ms. Petry. The 39-year-old former businesswoman led the party into the Saxony parliament by winning 9.7 percent of the vote in a state election last August.
Mr. Lucke, who is dismissed as a “control freak” by deputy leader Alexander Gauland, wants the AfD to focus on pro-market economic policies. His rivals believe it should concentrate on addressing voter fears about immigration.
An ally of Mr. Lucke, Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of Germany’s Federation of German Industries, quit the party’s national board last week, saying it would lose its way if leaders don’t settle their differences.
The party slipped two points to 4 percent in an opinion poll last week – the first time this year that the AfD has fallen below the 5-percent limit.
Meanwhile, Ms. Petry is fast emerging as a champion of the AfD’s right wing. Some see her as a rallying figure for the anti-immigrant vote in Germany.
In her speeches and public appearances, she never says anything that goes too far or could be described as outright xenophobic.
How dangerous is she? Could she turn into the charismatic, populist leader that the country’s right has so far lacked?
Political analysts in Germany say a populist right-wing party could easily win 20 percent of the vote if the right politician came along to lead it. And in Germany, if you get that kind of support, you can make or break governments.
Some would say she’s the perfect modern woman. The high-achieving student won a stipend to study chemistry at Britain’s Reading University. She is now married to a pastor, has four children, plays the organ and sang in a choir in Leipzig until last year.
She’s a sought-after guest at political talk shows where she’s combative and fluently persuasive. Mr. Henkel once said she was doubtlessly good at presenting herself, but added that she could be extremely conniving.
Detractors accuse her of pretending to be a mediating force in the current power struggle while secretly undermining compromises that she publicly backed.
For instance, at a party conference in February members were due to vote on a proposal to streamline leadership and have just one speaker in the future, rather than three co-leaders. The aim was to ensure that AfD spoke with one voice.
Ms. Petry backed the proposal and brought members in by buses to the northern city of Bremen for the poll. Her critics, however, said leaflets were found on the buses urging members to vote against the change. Ms. Petry denies that.
It’s hard to brand her as being far right. In her speeches and public appearances, she never says anything that goes too far or that could be described as outright xenophobic.
Asked if Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, is a role model, she immediately said definitely not.
Why not? She hesitated for a moment, then replied: “Because of the hyper-polarization. She’s on the extreme right. She just goes too far.”
Mr. Lucke wants the AfD to distance itself from “organizations in the orbit of right-wing radicalism,” but Ms. Petry voted against the proposal.
“It angers many people who don’t understand why divergent opinions should be punished,” she said.
She could become a figurehead for the army of people frustrated with politics and mainstream parties.
Last January, a week after the Islamist attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in Paris – and at the height of Pegida demonstrations centered in Dresden – Ms. Petry held a news conference to demand that Germany tighten its asylum policies.
A French journalist pointed out that the terrorists in Paris spoke perfect French and were well integrated. So wasn’t Ms. Petry just fomenting fear?
She countered that the news conference in Dresden had nothing to do with the Paris killings, and had been scheduled before the attacks occurred. But she hadn't canceled it after the attacks either.
The government, Ms. Petry said, was also fomenting fear – fear of Pegida demonstrators.
Supporters describe her as clever, pragmatic and ready to listen to ideas. She says of herself that she wants to bring the various strands in the party together. That’s the talk of someone who wants to lead.
When it comes to connecting with people, Ms. Petry clearly has the edge over Mr. Lucke. He appeals to their minds while she goes for their hearts, or rather their guts.
She could become a figurehead for the army of people frustrated with politics and mainstream parties — and for a conservatism that stretches all the way from the outer fringes into the middle ground now dominated by Chancellor Merkel.
Ms. Petry’s next goal is to get the AfD into the national parliament in the 2017 general election. And where does she see herself in 10 years?
“I see us in government,” she replied. She added that she hadn’t thought about what her role might be then.
Mr. Lucke is said to be worried that she might run against him for the leadership at the next party conference in June.
Asked if she plans to do so, she said: “No.”
But she’s not averse to keeping him worried. At a recent board meeting, Mr. Lucke arrived to find her sitting in his seat – at the head of the table.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]