Cologne unites against fractured AfD | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.04.2017
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Cologne unites against fractured AfD

Germany’s right-wing AfD has gotten off to a rough start at its national convention in Cologne. For protesters, though, the day was as much a street party as about the political party. DW’S Elizabeth Schumacher reports.

It takes some kind of determination to get up before the sun on a Saturday to take part in a protest, but that is exactly what hundreds, then thousands, of demonstrators did in the western German city of Cologne. With events beginning at 7 am local time (0500 UTC) and set to carry on into the night, protesters made it clear that the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) would not find an easy welcome in their city.

"The slide to the far right happens step by step; we have to take a stand before it begins," Jan Sperling, a spokesman for the organizers, told DW.

Some 70 organizations brought together around 10,000 demonstrators, Sperling said. Far below the predicted 50,000 - perhaps the rain and gray kept them away - but enough, activists hoped, to "show the AfD that Cologne is, and will stay, colorful," as one protester put it.

"Colorful" (or "bunt" in German), was the word of the day as protesters marched downtown, decked out in costumes, blowing bubbles and making music. Confetti littered the cobblestones of the old town, reminiscent more of Cologne's famed Carnival than of a right-wing party convention, though the AfD was meeting right next door.

After few minor violent incidents earlier on the day, in which two police officers and an AfD member were lightly injured and suspects duly arrested, the protests stayed peaceful throughout. The "hundreds of potentially violent far-left radicals" feared by authorities failed to materialize. The ominous mood of the previous night and early evening, made palpable by 4,000 on-duty police officers, armored police vehicles and helicopter overhead, gave way to celebration, concerts  and rousing speeches.

Deutschland Köln - Demonstrationen gegen den AfD Parteitag (DW/A. Prange)

Protests in Cologne turned into a street festival

Cologne mayor, state premier join protests

"First come the slogans, then comes the knife. I would know something about that," said Cologne's Mayor Henriette Reker, alluding to the way she was stabbed on the campaign trail in October 2015 over her pro-refugee stance. "Together we are sending a common signal for our democracy, for human rights, for tolerance."

Demonstrationen gegen den AfD Bundesparteitag in Köln Henriette Reker (picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress)

Reker has personal experience of far-right violence

Tolerance was another word happily repeated amongst the protesters. Angry at what they saw as the AfD's crusade against Islam, LGBT acceptance and the European Union, demonstrators told DW over and over again that this was "Cologne saying no to intolerance."  Indeed, for many, that seemed to be the most galling factor of all: that a party that trumpets a single "German identity" would descend on their progressive city - a place where civic pride is usually more important than being German.

Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democrat (SPD) premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Cologne is located and where elections will be held in three weeks' time (a poll that is crucial for AfD momentum looking ahead to federal elections in September), joined Reker on stage. "It is right to stand up early and show what you're made of," Kraft told the cheering crowd.

Proteste gegen Bundesparteitag der AfD Hannelore Kraft (picture alliance/dpa/O.Berg)

Kraft: "Stand up early"

Major setback for Petry

Inside the Maritim Hotel, just across the street from where Kraft and Reker were speaking at the city's Heumarkt square, the AfD convention was a completely different world. A tense, divided party had little they were able to decide on - except what they wouldn't decide on: namely, the fate of alleged neo-Nazi Björn Höcke, and co-chair Frauke Petry's strategy for the future.

Read: Petry will not stand as lead candidate in 2017 elections

The latter dealt a crushing blow to Petry, who of late has tried subtly to make the AfD a more "realistic choice for German voters." The majority decision not to debate her strategy was a rejection of Petry and a clear choice to follow the more far-right voices in the party. Even as she opened the conference, to both claps and boos, an exhausted-looking Petry already had tears in her eyes.

She promptly made good on her promise to step back from the forefront of the AfD, despite being its most recognizable face ahead of key elections. Calling the decision to deny her plan for the party's future a "mistake," she said it was time that "others should lead" but that she would remain an active party member.

Deutschland Bundesparteitag der AfD in Köln (Reuters/W. Rattay)

Petry has many opponents within her party

It could be a strategy on her part, to wait out declining polls numbers and her accordingly stumbling popularity, or it could be, as she said in an interview a few weeks ago, time for her to return to "regular life," as she awaits the birth of her fifth child.

Or it could be, as her co-chair Jörg Meuthen scathingly put it, that the AfD members don't want to be "a minority in their own country," or a palatable junior coalition party like the Free Democrats (FPD).

The AfD was set to continue its fractured convention - it took more than three hours just to decide on the day's agenda - on Sunday. As of Saturday afternoon, it was still very much up for grabs who would lead the party through its first federal election.

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