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Germany

Infighting symptomatic of AfD in key election year?

Despite massive infighting, Germany's right-wing populist AfD is almost surely headed for good results in state and national polls this year. Voters are disillusioned with the country's refugee policies, analysts say.

In populous North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party bickered and fought over leadership issues at its state convention on Sunday just months ahead of a key state election regarded as a litmus test for national polls in September.

Domestic power struggles or no - the AfD, which currently has about 4,500 members in NRW, is aiming to enter the state parliament there in the May 14 vote. The party already has seats in 10 of Germany's 16 state parliaments - and also has set its sights on entering the national parliament, the Bundestag.

The AfD will in fact win enough votes to enter both assemblies, says Professor Carsten Koschmieder of the Berlin-based Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science. The AfD is also expected to win a sizable share of the vote in state polls in Saarland in March and Schleswig-Holstein in May.

The populist party might then go on to become the third largest force in the national parliament later his year.

Voters don't care

The AfD voters don't care about the power struggles and infighting, Koschmieder told DW. "They don't vote for the party because of its program or for its political qualities, but because they are dissatisfied with the current situation," - in particular Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies. 

Even if the AfD is already widely tipped to win seats at the national level - polls currently give it 15 percent at least - the outcome of the NRW vote matters greatly to the party, Koschmieder says, because the better it does in the state vote, the more media attention it gets ahead of the national vote. 

The AfD was formed in 2013 by economics professor Bernd Lucke as a Euroskeptic fringe party, denouncing expensive eurozone bailouts and urging a return to the Deutschmark, Germany's currency until early 2002.

From anti-euro to anti-immigrant

Last year, Lucke was forced out, losing the leadership to Frauke Petry as the party's focus shifted and the AfD morphed into an anti-immigration party attacking Chancellor Merkel's liberal refugee policy, Islam, multiculturalism and planned free-trade agreements with the United States and Canada.

Power struggles have been frequent all along, but that in itself is not unusual in a young party, Koschmieder points out. But it has been particularly fierce in the case of the AfD, he says, adding that the party has two wings but doesn't tolerate any other camps. There is no room for dissent, he says, arguing that it's all about individual power, not about substance.

Björn Höcke (picture alliance/dpa/M. Schutt)

Björn Höcke and Petry have struggled over how far to the right the AfD should be positioned

Currently vying for influence at the head of the party: leader Frauke Petry, a 41-year-old businesswoman and mother of four along with her co-chairman Jörg Meuthen, Björn Höcke - the AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia - and deputy chief Alexander Gauland.

"There's not much willingness to compromise, so infighting is bound to continue," Koschmieder says. "We see rifts in six of the 10 AfD state parliamentary groups." 

Disagreements that made the news have included members trying to ally the AfD - which is nationalistic but doesn't want to be called an extremist or "Nazi" party - with explicitly far-right parties in Europe. 

Meuthen fell out with his federal co-leader Petry, the party's best-known national face, over anti-Semitic allegations by an AfD lawmaker - and went on to create a new parliamentary group in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Höcke triggered anger across Germany when he criticized Berlin's Holocaust Memorial as a "monument of shame." Even members of his own party said he "went too far." The AfD executive, however, decided not to expel Höcke, one of their more right-leaning leaders, but to impose unspecified "disciplinary measures" instead.

Although Chancellor Merkel is considered very likely to retain power in the September election, she has at the same identified the populist rightwing party as "a challenge for us all."