Protests, power struggle mar German populist party's congress

Protesters have marched on the streets in Cologne to show their opposition to Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, as it met for talks ahead of September's election.

COLOGNE • Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party's congress yesterday was marred by a bitter power struggle five months before a general election, as well as disruptions by thousands of leftist demonstrators.

As the 600 delegates began entering the venue, a hotel in the western city of Cologne, singing and chanting protesters attempted to stop them passing through security barricades, leading to scuffles with authorities. Two police officers were injured.

Up to 50,000 demonstrators had been expected to mobilise during the two-day gathering of the anti-immigration party, with 4,000 police officers dispatched to keep the peace.

As the congress began, AfD co-leader Frauke Petry failed in her bid to rally members behind a more moderate programme based on pragmatic "Realpolitik" intended to shut down the party's more extremist voices.

The Bild newspaper called delegates' decision not to even debate her motion a "blow" for Ms Petry, a 41-year-old former chemist who is pregnant with her fifth child.

In a fervent appeal opening the event, Ms Petry said the AfD could still aim to become Germany's top party by the next general election in four years' time if it softened the harder edges of its message.

But her chief rival, 76-year-old Alexander Gauland, had urged delegates to defeat her Realpolitik motion, calling it "divisive".

The AfD, now represented in 11 of Germany's 16 states, aims to sign off on a programme that will pave the way for the party to enter the German Parliament for the first time in its four-year history.

Founded in 2013 on a Eurosceptic platform, the AfD seized on Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015, transforming the German political landscape.

But its fortunes have declined as the number of new arrivals has dwindled, and all of Germany's mainstream parties have ruled out working with it if it clears the five per cent hurdle to representation in the Sep 24 general election.

Opinion polls show the AfD at between seven and 11 per cent, a steep drop from the 15 per cent support it drew only late last year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Protests, power struggle mar German populist party's congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe