Europe's right-wing leaders meeting in Germany

Conference of prominent populist leaders today seen as show of force targeted at EU

BERLIN • Prominent leaders of Europe's right-wing populist parties will gather in the German city of Koblenz today in what observers see as a show of force targeting the European Union.

The meeting has gained widespread attention in Germany as the first public get-together of Ms Frauke Petry, chairman of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Ms Marine Le Pen, president of France's National Front.

Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and Mr Matteo Salvini of Italy's Northern League are also set to speak at the one-day conference organised by Mr Marcus Pretzell, an AfD member of the European Parliament, who is also the husband of Ms Petry .

German political commentators consider the meeting a signal of the AfD's shifting further to the right, since many Germans associate France's National Front in particular with anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing positions.

The AfD sparked controversy ahead of the event when party officials barred several journalists from attending.

Mr Pretzell did not attempt to hide his contempt for journalists.

For Mr Timo Lochocki, an expert on right-wing populist parties, the AfD's treatment of the news media is part of a clever PR strategy.

"If you exclude three media outlets, these three media outlets will cover the event all the more... And if your electorate is generally sceptical anyway whether the so-called quality press is producing quality, this is terrific," Mr Lochocki said.

Stirring controversy appears to be an essential part of the AfD's strategy for the upcoming German parliamentary elections. As an internal document revealed, the party wants to use "carefully planned provocations" to irritate political opponents.

To be unfairly stigmatised by the established parties, according to the AfD's reasoning, would make it even more popular with voters.

This week, Mr Bjorn Hocke, the AfD's chairman in the German state of Thuringia, sparked outrage by calling the Berlin Holocaust memorial "a memorial of disgrace" and German commemoration culture "stupid".

Mr Hocke defended the statements, which he made in a speech in Dresden, arguing that nothing could be wrong with calling the Nazi genocide a "disgrace". But Mr Pretzell and other party colleagues have distanced themselves from the comments.

Yet Mr Hocke's speech drew a lot of attention, which, Mr Lochocki believes, is also the main objective of the Koblenz conference.

Although the attendees share a general anti-elitist stance, dialogue with their European counterparts is not the most important aspect of the meeting. Instead, according to Mr Lochocki, the aim is to shine a spotlight on the flaws of the established political parties.

Its strong criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy appears to have been successful. Founded in 2013, the AfD is already reaching double-digit numbers in the polls and has good prospects of entering the German Parliament for the first time in autumn.

"The majority of AfD voters don't vote for the AfD. They vote against the others," Mr Lochocki said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Europe's right-wing leaders meeting in Germany'. Print Edition | Subscribe