Controversial statements about shooting refugees at the German border recently made by AfD front women Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch have started a new leadership discussion within the party.
Those who think that the AfD (Alternative for Germany) will self-destruct, are mistaken. The truth is: There is a power struggle within the party. But that has been the case from the start, as when Frauke Petry triumphed over party chairman Bernd Lucke. When that happened last summer, Björn Höcke, AfD chairman in the central German state of Thuringia and group chairman in Thuringia's state parliament, said that his time would come. Back then he told Deutsche Welle that Petry would fall - and that he had time to wait for that moment.
Höcke is not alone. Brandenburg's party leader, Alexander Gauland, has now joined him. And together with André Poggenburg, head of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt, and a man who stands a good chance of being elected into the state parliament in March elections, the three are developing a powerful new axis. One that could give the AfD an even more dramatically nationalist bent than under Petry.
In-fighting among moderates and radicals
On the other side of the divide, current co-chairman Jörg Meuthen will most likely be elected group leader of Baden-Württemberg's state parliament. Economist Meuthen is part of the AfD's "professorial block," which, although noticeably smaller since Lucke's ousting, nevertheless still exists. Petry virtually forced him into party leadership in order to have a bourgeois figurehead for the party. There are also more liberal AfD politicians in the city states of Bremen and Hamburg, though these have been less visible on the national stage. Together with Uwe Junge in Rhineland-Palatinate, where elections will also be held in March, they represent the moderate wing of the party.
So there is a power struggle going on between several different wings of the AfD, just like in other parties, especially around the time their founding. One only need think of the in-fighting between, at times extreme, groups during the formative years of the Green party. The bigger question is when this fight will get a public forum. Skirmishes at national board meetings do not offer enough space for such things. Yet everyone knows that a public power struggle would appear suicidal. The party itself is in good shape heading into March's parliamentary elections. They are enjoying double-digit approval ratings. But in April, a party platform convention is to be held. Then things could once again become heated.
There is no such thing as a national AfD, but rather individually oriented parties throughout the states. One of Petry's strengths is the fact that she permits, and can manage, this kind of diversity, thus allowing the AfD to tailor these smaller units toward the clientele of the individual states.
How will the base react?
As interesting as it is to see the power struggles at the top of the party, it is also important to keep an eye on developments among the party's rank and file. The AfD is establishing itself quite well on this front. Here, just two examples: A pediatrician representing the AfD is on the city council of a town in Rhineland-Palatinate. The local Christian Democrats (CDU) fear that soon they may have trouble concerning platform overlaps with the AfD at the municipal level.
In Lübbenau, a small town in Brandenburg's Spreewald district, a locally raised young father who is a craftsman with a small business and a noble lineage, has decided to run for the office of mayor. Now, the longtime CDU mayor will have to face his first political opponent in years. Should the Höcke wing emerge victorious over Petry in the end, many such local mainstream AfD politicians could begin to have problems of conscience. They want a different kind of politics, but not one that is radical.
Petry herself is not without her vulnerabilities. After separating from her husband, a Protestant minister with whom she has four children, she has been living with AfD's North Rhine-Westphalian chairman, Markus Pretzell. That does not fit the family ideal of many of the AfD's conservative base. Höcke, who also has four children, will know how to take advantage of that sentiment.
The fact that everyone is talking about the AfD has to do with the upcoming elections. That is also why there is such a public debate about a "firing order" against refugees, from which the AfD is currently profiting. Manfred Güllner, head of the opinion polling institute Forsa, says the debate is having a double effect: "On the one hand, radical AfD voters feel validated. On the other hand, the chasm between the party and the rest of society has gotten larger. One could say that Petry has made clear how the AfD ticks."