As the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party conference began, its chairs refuted accusations of discord in the leadership. But disagreement was rife elsewhere at the conference, reports Elizabeth Schumacher from Bremen.
More than 2,000 people gathered in Bremen on Friday for the conference of Germany's youngest political party, the conservative, euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD). The number seems to have shocked the organizers, as they scrambled at the last minute to arrange a second venue for the event, so that the AfD has taken over not only the Bremen Congress Center, but the large theater next to it as well.
A long line of largely white-haired, mostly male party members waited patiently to enter the hall. Only a handful of protestors were present, although a larger anti-AfD demonstration is planned for tomorrow.
No matter what, 'the Germans will pay'
Inside, the party leaders, including chairs Bernd Lucke, Frauke Petry, and Konrad Adam, as well as co-founder Alexander Gauland, spoke to the press about PEGIDA, the euro, and the rumors of deep divisions within the party, particularly at the top.
While the AfD turns its attention to "Islamization," immigration and security issues, their founding principle of opposition to the euro appears to have been sidelined. Not so, argued Lucke, who acts as the face of the party. He bristled at the idea that the euro would no longer play a large role in party politics, saying, "Greece must leave the euro. We hope they will, although it no longer seems to be the plan."
Jörn Kruse, an AfD candidate for the upcoming state parliamentary elections in Hamburg, phrased things more provocatively in a release handed out to the press: "No matter how Greece votes, the Germans will pay."
What internal divide?
Frauke Petry flatly denied that ideological divisions were pushing the party into the far-right, responding to earlier comments made by vice chair Hans-Olaf Henkel that the party shouldn't share a boat with people too far to the right. She and Konrad Adam also denied feeling sidelined by Bernd Lucke's frequent presence in the media and how he puts himself forward as the one voice of the party, despite there being three chairpersons. German media has reported often on such divisions in the weeks preceding the conference.
Lucke, a former economics professor, said that he planned to use this weekend's event to narrow the three-leader model down to one by the end of the year. He did not say if he planned to seek the position - although his leadership is often treated as a foregone conclusion both within and beyond the party.
Disagreements emerged over how to approach the PEGIDA ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West") marches. As the group implodes, some of its members are turning away from fighting "Islamization" and turning towards seeking direct democracy measures such as referendums, something AfD also wishes to bring to Germany.
While Lucke rejected any cooperation with PEGIDA whatsoever, Brandenburg party chair Alexander Gauland disagreed, and spoke of his admiration for the prominent PEGIDA figure Katrin Oertel, who resigned her post this week.
A new cook for Germany
In the end it was not Lucke, but Petry, who took the stage to welcome her fellow party members and give the opening speech. In a talk filled with kitchen metaphors - the old parties have prepared a "tasteless menu" of policy that simply throws packaged sauces at problems, and the AfD "offers a new meal plan," Petry called on her "comrades-in-arms" to fight against established party politics. The establishment, she said, has led to a European Union-controlled "socialist egalitarianism" takeover of Germany.
"We have touched more than one nerve," she said proudly, adding that it wouldn't be long before AfD would be sitting in the federal parliament. It came just short of the 5 percent threshold needed for federal representation in the 2013 election.
The AfD demographic trends male, educated, and over 40 - though a youth wing was also present at the conference
Not afraid of a fight
Following the raucous applause for Petry's speech, AfD party members showed how well, and long, they were willing to argue - even about the small things. It took the members over two and a half hours to decide on an agenda for the next day, intermittently fighting about how long everyone should be allowed to talk (one member facetiously suggested five milliseconds), whether one of the chairmen of the meeting should be removed, and whether votes should be taken electronically or by raising red and green bits of paper.
Despite the best efforts of Lucke and Petry to expedite the discussion, the debates got so out of control that one of the meeting chairs accused other members of attempting sabotage.
Professor Herwig Birg, who closed the evening with a speech titled "The aging republic and the failure of policy," had to start over half an hour later in the two-hour space allotted for his talk.