The far-Right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has been thrown into confusion just five months ahead of national elections after its leader unexpectedly stepped down as its candidate for chancellor.
Party supporters were on Thursday coming to terms with the shock announcement that Frauke Petry would not lead the party into September’s elections.
The party conference which was supposed to launch the election campaign in Cologne this weekend is set to become a crisis meeting as the party scrambles to replace her.
The conference is being held under extraordinary security, with as many as 50,000 protesters expected to demonstrate against the far-Right party.
Aircraft have been banned from flying over the city centre and an extra 4,000 police have been drafted in.
To complicate matters further, Mrs Petry has not resigned as party leader, but only said she will not serve as candidate for chancellor. Under the German political system, the two roles can be separate, though in practice they rarely are.
The extraordinary announcement is the latest development in a power struggle that has gripped the AfD in recent months and seen it plummet in the national opinion polls.
Mrs Petry’s rivals on the extreme right of the party have been determined to wrest control from her. They were widely expected to attempt to block her from being named as chancellor candidate at this weekend’s conference.
With her shock announcement, Mrs Petry appears to have forestalled them.
In a video message to supporters, she threw down the gauntlet over the issue, saying the AfD had more “urgent matters” to resolve than the leadership.
The party has to choose between “realpolitik and ideological opposition”, she said.
“The AfD image is constantly compromised by the provocation of a few members — which always comes as a complete surprise to the leadership,” she said.
The remark was a clear reference to Björn Höcke, the senior party figure who caused controversy earlier this year when he called for Germany to stop feeling remorse for its Nazi past.
AfD support fell sharply in the opinion polls after Mr Höcke’s remarks, but Mrs Petry’s attempts to expel him have been blocked by his allies on the extreme right.
Mrs Petry’s decision not to run for chancellor is a risky move. While the AfD has no realistic chance of winning the chancellorship, German party leaders who have not run for the office in the past have rarely remained in charge for long.
Mrs Petry, who took control of the AfD in a right-wing coup against its founder, Bernd Lücke, now looks to be at risk of being ousted in a right-wing coup pof her own.
“We will have no difficulty finding a new chancellor candidate,” Jörg Meuthen, one of her rivals within the party, said.
But Mrs Petry’s withdrawal could hit the AfD further in the opinion polls. It has already seen its support drop from a high of 16 per cent last September to just nine per cent in recent weeks.
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