The momentum enjoyed by the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) over the past year could be under threat as the 2017 general election approaches, thanks to turmoil in the state next in line to go to the polls.
The national AfD is currently in the awkward position of opposing its own representatives in Saarland, which will vote on March 26, after it attempted to disband the state AfD for maintaining contact with local neo-Nazis.
The party's own court of arbitration ruled this weekend that the Saarland chapter will not be disbanded after all. The court told party members on Sunday that even though the allegations against the regional party were "largely true" and "serious," disbanding the whole chapter was "disproportionate."
The federal party leaders Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen reacted immediately, circulating a letter to all AfD members calling on the Saarland AfD to withdraw from the election. "This step should be taken for the sake of the entire party in the important election year 2017," the letter, quoted in the German media, said. There were, Petry and Meuthen added, "serious doubts about the integrity of essential parts of the leadership."
Right-wing civil war
The Saarland AfD was equally determined in response, saying that withdrawal was out of the question, not least because it had already submitted its list of candidates. Saarland spokesman and leading candidate Rudolf Müller also dismissed the implication that the state party's campaign would harm the AfD nationally.
"We're not damaging the party, we're helping the party," he told DW. "We've been doing the work of the AfD here for years, according to its principles. We have nothing to be ashamed of - that's what the ruling said."
The Saarland AfD is facing a number of allegations over its alleged ties to the far-right. In March this year, "Stern" magazine uncovered emails and WhatsApp messages covering several months between local party leader Josef Dörr and various far-right groups, and accused Dörr of trying to win new members from the ranks of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
"Stern" said that the national AfD leadership had known of the ties since October last year, but only moved to disband the local chapter after the magazine's story came out. At a party conference on April 30, AfD members voted to disband the Saarland chapter, but left the final decision to the court of arbitration.
Bad kids and Nazi memorabilia
The magazine piled further pressure on the Saarland AfD in September, when it reported that Müller had sold Nazi medals with swastikas and money used in concentration camps from his antiques store. This is a criminal offense in Germany, and state prosecutors have confirmed that they have begun an investigation.
This was also condemned by the national party leadership, who suggested that Müller should consider handing over his party card. Such behavior was "not consistent with membership of the AfD," national leader Meuthen said at the time. "Apparently he is aware of that too."
Müller himself refused to discuss the investigation with DW, but told news agency DPA in September that he had not done anything illegal, since the swastikas on the medals had not been on public display. "I always stick something over them," he told the news agency.
But Müller was dismissive of the allegations about the party's contacts with the far-right. "This is not how it happened," he said. "If some bad kid makes contact with you, then you might exchange a few words with him, maybe telephone with him, walk down the road - until you realize that he's a bad kid. Then you break off contact with him. Period. End of story. That's what happened here."
According to Müller, the AfD court of arbitration's decision vindicated that version. "The next accusation was that there had been cooperation with those groups - none of that is true," he said. "Absolute lies." He also added that he expected the national party to support him in the upcoming election.
The AfD has consistently struggled with revelations about far-right sympathies among its representatives in local elections. In July, Baden-Württemberg MP Wolfgang Gedeon was forced to resign from the party's parliamentary faction after anti-Semitic statements in a 2012 book were uncovered. Similarly, Heribert Eisenhardt, elected to a local district council for the AfD in Berlin in September, was formerly a spokesman for the anti-immigrant group Bärgida and allegedly participated in neo-Nazi rallies in the city.