German populists AfD torn over whether to shift further right

16th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Germany's populist party AfD enjoyed a surge in support in weekend elections despite public outrage over its leader's comment that police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them entering the country.

But Frauke Petry, who was responsible for that comment, counts in fact among more moderate voices in a party still struggling to define itself as an internal tug-of-war rumbles on between her less extremist group and a far-right faction. 

"Through its programme and by its officials' comments, the AfD offers a range that goes from its national conservative positions to that of an extreme-right," Oskar Niedermayer, political analyst at Berlin's Free University, told Die Welt daily. 

Founded in 2013 by Bernd Luecke on an anti-euro platform, the party has since transformed itself into anti-migrant outfit after the economics professor was ousted by Petry in July last year.

The departure of Luecke heralded the demise of the liberal wing of the party, which is now torn internally over how far right it should position itself. 

Alexander Haeusler, political scientist at the University of Applied Sciences of Duesseldorf, said Thueringen party leader Bjoern Hoecke and his counterpart in Saxony-Anhalt Andre Poggenburg are among those preaching an extremist line.

Hoecke sparked outrage when he said in December that the "reproductive behaviour of Africans" could be a threat for Germany, while Poggenburg has campaigned for an "upper limit of zero" for asylum seekers. 

Both men have created an internal far-right faction called Der Fluegel (The Wing) and which aims to turn AfD into a German version of France's National Front.

"These are clearly the partisans of a new radical and nationalist right" who are seeking to use their regions as laboratories for their ideas, Haeusler said.  

- 'Provocative speech' - 

Compared to them, Petry as well as Joerg Meuthen, who headed the AfD's team in Sunday's elections in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, were the more tempered voices.

Petry, who has herself said "pertinent, and sometimes also provocative speech" is indispensable to get attention, has refused to engage in "a debate on labels" when asked how close her party is to the FN in France or the Freedom Party in Austria.

Co-leader Meuthen, however, distanced the party from the FN, saying Marine Le Pen's group was a "party that has fundamentally nationalist and socialist ideas, which are alien to our party".

Although Meuthen only scored 15.1 percent in Baden-Wurttemberg compared to Poggenburg's 24.1 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, it was in some ways a more significant success. 

In absolute numbers -- with 810,000 votes, it was simply the best showing for the party in the regional elections. In addition, the foray into the prosperous southwestern state marked a coup for the party which was previously seen as attractive mainly to disenfranchised voters in the former communist east.

That may therefore confer a greater voice in the party to the economic professor, who has largely captured the votes from the middle class in his state.

In addition, Meuthen's expertise could be necessary to help the party construct a coherent economic programme that could strike a chord with both the unemployed in the former communist east as well as the better situated in the west and south of the country.

Alexander Gauland, one of the AfD's top officials, said Monday that his party was out to give "working people" a voice. 

However, the AfD's liberal economic ideas, inherited from Luecke's era, do not correspond to this line. 

AfD is "like a vacuum cleaner that is sucking everything up," Stefan Merz, an election analyst at Infratest Dimap, told TAZ daily. 

At the moment it is described by Meuthen as "a new conservative and liberal force, that respects the people's values, that is open to the world while at the same time patriotic."

That, for now, is broad enough to encompass the party's diverse factions. But its congress at the end of April aims to draw up a programme which may finally sharpen its focus. 


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