Frauke Petry, the face of the nationalist Alternative for Germany, has suffered a blow to her political career weeks before the Bundestag elections. Even her AfD colleagues have dropped her as prosecutors ready charges.
Germany in January 2016: Nearly a million refugees had arrived over the past year, more than 440,000 of whom had applied for asylum. The country was still grappling with how to deal with the newcomers. Hundreds of women had reported being sexually assaulted by foreign men on New Year's Eve in Cologne, setting off a heated discussion on how to deal with non-citizens who commit crimes.
Against this backdrop, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party's co-chair Frauke Petry reminded the country that she knew how to provoke.
"We need comprehensive controls to prevent so many unregistered refugees from crossing the border," Petry said in an interview weeks after the assaults, adding that guards "must prevent illegal border crossings and even use firearms if necessary."
Condemnation came quickly - from the political class, from the police union, from the media: Petry's proposal was reminiscent of the orders that saw border guards in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) shoot and kill people trying to flee to the West, said Thomas Oppermann, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Bundestag.
Perhaps Petry thought that she had little to lose. There was a year and a half to go until German elections, and the fledgling AfD, of which she was the star, was more popular than ever. Days before, a poll had found that the party would garner 13 percent of the vote if a general election were held that Sunday. That put them in third place, behind only Germany's creaking old Christian Democrats (CDU) and SPD. The future looked bright for Petry and Co.
Home in the AfD
Born in Dresden, East Germany, in 1975, Petry grew up in Brandenburg and moved with her mother to the West German town of Bergkamen before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the GDR ceased to exist. She was a high-achiever, did well in school, earned a PhD in chemistry, married a Protestant pastor, started a company to produce an environmentally friendly polyurethane that she and her mother had invented, and bore four children. The company still exists, albeit under a different name, and has distanced itself from Petry and her party. She now has a fifth child, with her second husband, Marcus Pretzell, who is also an AfD party official.
At one time, Petry apparently considered joining the CDU, now the party of Angela Merkel, but was put off when she was told that the conservatives spent more time talking tactics than discussing content. She found her political home in 2013, when the AfD formed as a party whose main thrust was opposing "bailouts" for indebted EU countries such as Greece. Petry became one of the AfD's three spokespeople and led the party's victorious entry into the Saxony state parliament in 2014 - just months after its first ballot box success, in elections for the European Parliament.
The arrival of refugees in large numbers in 2015 was the catalyst for the AfD to make immigration - that is, opposition to it - the party's main focus. Petry was re-elected as AfD co-chair in July, after winning her battle against founder Bernd Lucke, who had opposed the party's drift to the right. The AfD may have cemented its place on the far-right end of the political spectrum, but it is frequently wracked by infighting between the pragmatic and hard-core ideological wings of the party.
Petry had become an asset to her party and its public face. At AfD events or in TV interviews, she cut a sympathetic figure, skillfully presenting issues in such a way that both conservatives and far-right extremists were drawn to her mixture of populism and intellectualism with personality. She had studied at the University of Reading and could handle English-language media, as well.
Recently, however, the AfD has apparently begun to drift too far to the right for Petry, too. She experienced a fierce backlash after she refused to support two disgraced party members over comments they made concerning the Holocaust at an event in January. And she suffered public humiliation at a party conference this spring, when she conceded that she would not stand as the AfD's top candidate in the federal election. Instead the nationalist lawmaker Alexander Gauland and economist Alice Weidel got the AfD's endorsement to lead the party into September's poll.
By August, Petry's backing within the party had shrunk so far, that when a parliamentary committee in Saxony recommended lifting her immunity from prosecution, the AfD members of the body did not protest. State prosecutors suspect Petry of lying under oath in November 2015, when she and fellow AfD member Carsten Hütter allegedly gave conflicting testimony on the party's candidate list and campaign financing ahead of Saxony's 2014 state election.
Petry welcomed the bid to lift her immunity, saying it might give her a chance to explain herself in public.
The AfD's popularity stands at about 10 percent, according to the most recent polls. That would translate to more than enough votes to enter the Bundestag after the elections on September 24. Frauke Petry is expected to win a seat, too.
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