Jörg Meuthen is engaged in the fight of his life. It is one that could destroy his political career — and end up tearing apart the most successful rightwing party in Germany’s postwar history.
The leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD), Mr Meuthen is embroiled in a toxic power struggle with the party’s leading rightwinger, a former Bundeswehr paratrooper called Andreas Kalbitz. Their tussle has caused so much ill will it is turning off once-loyal voters and even raising doubts about the party’s long-term viability.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Meuthen sought to play down tensions. “We are currently trying to clarify the AfD’s ideological direction,” he said. “People see that as disunity, [and] it’s causing a temporary dip in our poll ratings. But we have to do it.”
However, the slide in the AfD’s popularity has been spectacular. Late last year it was polling at about 15 per cent, the most recent surveys put it at 8 per cent.
The coronavirus pandemic has not helped. As often in a crisis, voters have rallied round the government parties, particularly Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The CDU has surged in polls while support has drained away from all Germany’s opposition groups — not only the AfD but also, to differing degrees, the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats and the hard-left Die Linke. But the AfD’s internal squabbling has only made a bad situation worse.
“The AfD . . . which until the end of last year was celebrating a kind of victory march . . . is now very much in decline,” said Hajo Funke, an expert in rightwing extremism.
The AfD started life in 2013 as a fringe Eurosceptic group protesting the Greek bailout. During the 2015-16 refugee crisis it adopted stridently anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric that chimed with rightwing voters angry at Ms Merkel’s asylum policies. It is now installed in every one of Germany’s 16 state parliaments and is the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
But over the past year or so, AfD members have separated into warring camps. On one side are relative moderates who would one day like to see the AfD enter government, perhaps in coalition with the CDU. On the other are hardline ethno-nationalists who want to overturn Germany’s political order.
The hardliners were, until recently, grouped in a loose organisation called the Wing, and Mr Kalbitz, the AfD’s boss in the eastern state of Brandenburg, was its ringleader. Over the past few months the Wing’s influence and power have steadily grown, to the consternation of the moderates.
“With the Wing we were witnessing an attempt to take over the whole party,” Mr Meuthen said.
As turmoil within the party intensified, the mood in Germany was gradually tilting away from the AfD. The killing of regional official Walter Lübcke last year by an alleged neo-Nazi, the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle and the mass shooting by an extremist gunman in Hanau in February triggered widespread popular revulsion against the far-right. The AfD was tarred by many with the same brush.
“People saw it as jointly responsible for the intensifying violence,” said Mr Funke. “They had stirred up too much hatred.”
A critical turning point came in January last year when Germany’s domestic intelligence agency labelled the Wing an extremist organisation and said it would begin formal monitoring of the group — infiltrating its members’ chat groups and listening in on their phone conversations. Moderates in the AfD feared the agency might go further and put the entire party on its watchlist.
With internal anger at the Wing growing, last month Mr Meuthen engineered Mr Kalbitz’s expulsion from the AfD, claiming he had deliberately concealed his membership of a neo-Nazi organisation, the Homeland-loyal German Youth, or HDJ, which has since been banned, and of the far-right party Die Republikaner. Mr Kalbitz denies ever being a member of the HDJ.
“Instead of really engaging with his rivals, Meuthen just uses shaky legal tricks to get rid of them,” Mr Kalbitz told the FT.
Mr Meuthen said he had no choice but to move against Mr Kalbitz. “People were asking: when are you going to do something?” he said. “They were saying if Kalbitz doesn’t go then we will.”
He insists the expulsion enjoyed widespread support in his party. “I have received so much praise, recognition and confirmation for this step — I’m absolutely sure that the majority was in favour.”
But that view is not shared by all AfD members. Steffen Kotré, an AfD MP from Brandenburg who was a member of the Wing, was enraged by Mr Meuthen’s manoeuvre. “You have the impression that he is working for the old parties and domestic intelligence, rather than the AfD,” he said.
Mr Kotré said many party members have now lost confidence in Mr Meuthen. “I can’t imagine that someone who has made so many mistakes and caused such damage can ever be re-elected party leader,” he said.
Mr Kalbitz, meanwhile, has challenged his expulsion from the AfD before both a civil court and the party’s own internal arbitration panel. He is confident of victory and believes he will win the ideological argument against Mr Meuthen, too.
“If he was trying to improve the AfD’s poll ratings by throwing me out of the party, it hasn’t worked,” he said. “We’re nosediving, not only in the west, and that’s all thanks to Meuthen’s fantasy of turning the AfD into some kind of CDU-reloaded.”