Germany's domestic intelligence agency is putting the Brandenburg branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, the Brandenburg Interior Ministry confirmed on Monday.
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The move was prompted after the AfD in the eastern German state voted to keep Andreas Kalbitz, a member who had been expelled by the national party, as its regional chief. The branch's decision caused a rift within the party.
German intelligence believes there is "sufficiently important evidence" to indicate that the branch was "striving against the free democratic order," said the state head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency (the Bundesverfassungsschutz), Jörg Müller.
There was also evidence to suggest that the branch had ties to various right-wing extremist organizations.
In Brandenburg, the AfD was "de facto being lead by a right-wing extremist with no party affiliation," Müller said.
Expelled for membership in banned party
Formally, the Brandenburg case has listed the situation as a "suspected case and an object of surveillance," meaning the intelligence agency cannot yet make use of all available surveillance measures.
The ranking AfD lawmaker in the federal parliament, Alice Weidel, slammed the move as a "totally see-through maneuver," which her party would "fight by legal means."
AfD's national leaders had previously voted to expel Kalbitz from the party because of his former membership in the now-banned right-wing extremist group Heimattreue Deutsche Jugende (HDJ, or German Youth Faithful to the Homeland).
But that proved controversial within the party, particularly in Brandenburg. The regional chapter went so far as to change local party statutes so that the 47-year-old could remain a member of the regional party despite his expulsion on a national level.
Kalbitz is currently fighting the national party's decision in court.
A 'Wing' or the 'entire bird'
Kalbitz is a close ally of the head of the party in Thuringia, Björn Höcke. Together, the two held sway in the "Wing," the extremist segment of the party that drew the attention of Germany's domestic intelligence agency. Under pressure from the AfD's executive committee, the "Wing" voted to dissolve itself in March.
Brandenburg's interior minister Michael Stübgen spoke out in favor of the decision on surveillance.
"In Brandenburg, the 'Wing' has long been been the entire bird," he said.
According to Stübgen, the AfD has become increasingly radicalized since its founding and the apparent dissolution of the "Wing" has made no difference.
In turn, intelligence officer Müller believes some 40% of AfD's 1600 Brandenburg members were part of the 'Wing' faction.
A 'nationalist and racist party'
The AfD received a surge of support in general elections in 2017, winning 12.6% of votes. The election made it the country's third-strongest party and the largest opposition force in Germany's parliament, but its ratings have since dropped to around 9% support.
On Monday, Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) also welcomed the move. FDP parliamentary chairman Benjamin Strasser said the decision to observe the Brandenburg chapter was only logical, adding that "the party continues to radicalize itself."
"Observing the federal party is likely to be the next logical step and is probably only a matter of time," he said.
"We see with the great concern that the AfD has become increasingly radicalized, that it is right-wing extremists, that it is radical in its thinking," added FDP deputy chairman Michael Theurer.
Martina Renner, vice-chairwoman of the Left party told news agency dpa: "No matter whether the wing is dissolved or Kalbitz is excluded, the AfD remains a nationalist and racist party, essentially."
kp,dj/msh (dpa, Reuters)