The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) on Saturday opened a conference where it was expected that the party would decide on whether to tread a more moderate course or steer to the extreme far-right.
The two-day gathering in the city of Braunschweig comes on the heels of state elections in eastern Germany in recent months that saw the AfD surge to second place in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia with more than 20% of the vote.
Yet despite recent successes at the ballot box, the AfD is riven by personal and ideological rivalries over which direction it should maneuver, now that it is the third-largest party in parliament and represented in all 16 German states.
Internal power struggles are set to be put on full display in the halls of the conference center, where 600 party delegates will choose co-chairs and 13 members of the executive committee.
Alexander Gauland, a founding party member and co-leader, is preparing to step down, leading to a scramble to replace one of the most prominent leaders. The 78-year-old is also heads the AfD’s faction in the national parliament, the Bundestag. The party’s other national co-chief, Jörg Meuthen, is considered a moderate and will defend his post.
An extreme-right faction known as the Wing (Flügel) is hoping to boost its representation on the executive council and make a bid to swing the leadership in its direction.
The Wing’s influence in the party has been strengthened after two of its key figures — Björn Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz — scored significant electoral victories in regional elections in eastern Germany this year. By some estimates, up to 40% of party members are sympathetic to the Wing, giving them a prominent role choosing the executive council and co-leaders.
A top candidate to fill Gauland’s shoes is Tino Chrupalla, a member of the national parliament from Saxony, who is viewed as a compromise figure between moderates and the Wing.
Another AfD lawmaker, Gottfried Curio, has also announced plans to join the leadership race. His parliamentary speeches have made him a far-right social media star.
Other candidates may yet put their names forward. Höcke has not announced his candidacy, but Wing member Nicole Höchst is reportedly plotting to unseat co-leader Joerg Meuthen, according to reports in the Welt and Taz newspapers.
Founded in 2013 initially as an economically eurosceptic party, the AfD has drifted to the right as it seized on the 2015 refugee crisis to promote an anti-Islam, anti-foreigner and pro-family program. Despite scoring above 20% in eastern Germany, it has stalled nationwide at about 13-15%.
Moderates within the party want to appeal to a broader political base and disgruntled voters by shedding its far-right image in a bid to capture support from other parties, particularly the ruling conservative Christian Democrats and their center-left Social Democrat coalition partners.
The battle over the future direction of the AfD is not only strategic, but an existential question.
It comes as Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has put some local AfD offices under further scrutiny. There is great concern within in the party that its national associations could be put under observation if it swings too far to the extreme right.
cw/rc (AFP, dpa)