BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A row over anti-Semitic comments penned by a regional lawmaker of Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has deepened a leadership split within the party.
The feud highlights the AfD’s balancing act ahead of 2017 elections — to appeal to anti-migrant sentiments without being labeled a far-right or neo-Nazi party.
The row pits the party’s most public face, Frauke Petry of the eastern, ex-communist Saxony state, against her AfD co-chief and bitter rival, Joerg Meuthen, who heads the party in western Baden-Wuerttemberg state.
The clash was sparked by an AfD lawmaker in Meuthen’s state group, Wolfgang Gedeon, who had labeled Holocaust deniers “dissidents” in his pamphlet “Green Communism and the Dictatorship of Minorities.”
In the text, Gedeon also criticized the fact that one of Germany’s biggest memorials, in Berlin, is dedicated not to the nation’s heroes, but to victims of the Holocaust, which he referred to as “certain misdeeds.”
Meuthen, 54, had called on Gedeon to resign. When the author of the incendiary text refused, Meuthen tried but failed to win a two-thirds majority among his chapter’s 23 lawmakers to force him out.
In protest, Meuthen and a dozen of his backers Tuesday declared they would step down from the AfD state assembly group, saying they did not want to be in the same party as an anti-Semite.
Petry, 41, hastily traveled to the state and held a closed-door meeting with Gedeon, who then in a surprise move said he would step down after all to preserve party unity.
Petry — who did not openly condemn Gedeon’s comments and expressed “respect” for his decision — said on Wednesday she wanted to heal the party.
Instead, Meuthen, enraged by what he saw as Petry’s meddling, announced Wednesday his backers had formed a new party called “Alternative for Baden-Wuerttemberg.”
He insisted it was the movement’s legitimate parliamentary faction in the state, saying “we are the AfD” — a claim speedily disputed by Petry.
The row spiraled back up to the national level, where a majority of AfD board members reportedly sided with Meuthen, setting the stage for escalating conflict and possible showdown.
National news agency DPA judged the struggle absurd and reminiscent of squabbles, in Monty Python’s 1979 religious satire “Life of Brian”, between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea.”
News website Spiegel Online said “a veritable power struggle is underway” between Petry and Meuthen and that the latest fight “could be the start of a disintegration process that grips the entire party.”
But it also pointed out that the AfD has weathered previous internal wars because “those who vote for this party couldn’t care less about the intrigues of its leaders.”
The AfD was founded as a euroskeptic protest party in 2013 but now mainly rails against Islam and Germany’s record refugee influx that last year brought more than one million asylum seekers to Europe’s top economy.
It currently polls at more than 10 percent and is represented in half of Germany’s 16 states as well as the European Parliament.