- - Thursday, March 2, 2017

BERLIN — For the Alternative for Germany, the right-wing populist party that shot to prominence on the strength of its attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward Middle Eastern and other refugees, the upcoming federal elections in September were supposed to be a moment of triumph.

Fresh from the string of electoral successes in state parliaments throughout Germany in the past two years, leaders of the AfD, as the party is known here, until recently hoped to win 15 percent of the votes in the elections, gains that would have made the party one of the strongest voices in the Bundestag behind Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

But a damaging string of conflicts within the AfD, triggered by taboo-breaking remarks on the Holocaust from leading party member Bjorn Hoecke, have thrown the party’s prospects into serious doubt.

With key elections set for countries across Europe this year and next year, the incident also dramatizes the potential problems that nationalist parties could face in the coming years as they try to transition from boisterous outsiders into parties that seriously intend to govern. German polls show the center-left Social Democrats, long a part of the country’s political mainstream, as the party with the momentum, reporting a surge of members under party standard-bearer Martin Schulz.

“The Hoecke affair will be something like an open wound for the AfD while it goes on,” said Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University of Dresden. “This is quite a difficult struggle just a couple of months ahead of the important federal elections.”

Mr. Hoecke, the AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, threw the party into disarray when he called for Germany to “make a 180-degree turn” in its culture of atonement over Nazi-era crimes, describing Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as an embarrassment to Germans.

“We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of its capital,” Mr. Hoecke said at a conference for the party’s youth wing in Dresden in January. “Until today, we are still not in a position to mourn our own victims.”

Mr. Hoecke’s remarks were met with outrage across Germany. He faced 91 lawsuits citing German laws against inciting hatred and slandering Holocaust victims.

On Wednesday, state prosecutors dropped the charges, saying Germany’s freedom of speech laws protected his remarks, but AfD Chairwoman Frauke Petry distanced herself from Mr. Hoecke’s remarks, describing him as a “burden on the party” and initiating proceedings for his ouster.

Mr. Hoecke has since apologized for his remarks but has said he has no intention of leaving the AfD and that his controversy shouldn’t hurt the party’s fortunes in the election because he is not running for a Bundestag seat.

Internal contradictions

Still, it’s a disagreement that could badly damage the fledgling AfD, which was founded barely four years ago.

Sachsische Zeitung, a daily in the former East Germany where the AfD enjoys its strongest support, speculated last month that the AfD was on the verge of breaking up, asking in a headline, “Is the AfD about to split?”

Mr. Patzelt said it’s unlikely the AfD will be able to smooth out all of its internal contradictions before September, with power struggles undercutting its attempts to rally behind a unified message in the fall.

“My feeling is it won’t be possible to expel Hoecke from the AfD before the federal election,” he said. “This open dispute will do all the more damage to the AfD, especially if Hoecke goes on with utterances like those he did a couple of weeks ago in Dresden.”

The party’s internal divisions are hurting it with German voters. Polls show that support for the AfD has plummeted from highs of 15 percent as recently as January to a little over 8 percent last week. That was the AfD’s weakest showing in more than a year.

Olaf Boehnke, an associate fellow with the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, said the intraparty disputes have been brewing for months.

“Now it is turning into a serious power play within the party leadership,” he said. “For Petry, it’s reached a momentum where she’s afraid she might lose her backing in the party and leadership while others try to gain ground on this conflict.”

The crisis has echoes of an earlier conflict within the AfD.

In 2015, Ms. Petry and her supporters supplanted former AfD boss Bernd Lucke, an economist who founded the AfD as a party opposing the adoption of the euro as the country’s currency, and other moderate members with their fervent criticism of Islam and refugees in Germany.

“Now the party has since moved more to the extremist side, and history is repeating in a way,” Mr. Boehnke said. “Frauke Petry is the new Lucke, and Hoecke is the new Petry.”

The recurring struggles are proof that the AfD has yet to establish itself as a coherent party, Mr. Boehnke said.

“The AfD is still very much in the making,” he said. “It is really striking to me that all its various regional leaders hold completely different views on issues. I really have the feeling they don’t agree on anything.”

AfD officials are trying to repair the damage with seven months to go before the vote. On Sunday, the party sent some 28,000 supporters a declaration, signed by Mr. Hoecke and Ms. Petry, urging them to “close ranks,” according to the Reuters news agency.

Asked about the party’s civil war, Ms. Petry told the news service, “The AfD is the AfD, and the majority decides where we’re going.”

If the AfD can deliver a unified message under Ms. Petry, the party’s prospects are bright, Mr. Patzelt said.

“If the Petry wing prevails in this struggle, the AfD has a place as a political party on the right side of Merkel’s CDU,” he said. “Far from being a neo-Nazi party or a neo-racist party, it could become a well-established party on the political spectrum.”


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