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What's behind Petry's choice?

Kommentarfoto Kay-Alexander Scholz Hauptstadtstudio
Kay-Alexander Scholz
April 19, 2017

Frauke Petry's decision not to run as the AfD's lead candidate in Germany's national election doesn't signal the end of her quest for power. She considers another choice more important, says Kay-Alexander Scholz.

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Image: Getty Images/J. Koch

In an extensive "New Yorker" profile published in October last year, Frauke Petry compared herself to Angela Merkel - both women are from East Germany and both are scientists with a PhD. The co-chair and most recognizable face of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is fascinated by the German chancellor's rise to power. Now, Petry herself has created another parallel. She has retreated from the front lines in a national election, just as Merkel did in 2002 when she stepped back and let Edmund Stoiber become the conservative candidate for chancellor. Petry has decided not to put herself forward as the AfD's lead candidate in Germany's parliamentary elections on September 24. The 41-year-old announced her decision in a Facebook video on Wednesday.

As in Merkel's case before she became chancellor, this step back takes place against a backdrop of tactical considerations. Today's loser can be tomorrow's winner. In 2002, Stoiber lost the election, whereas Merkel won the next time around in 2005.

Tactical withdrawal

Petry is taking a step back, but she may come back at a more advantageous point in time. Naturally, Petry's latest move is born of a realization that she lacks sufficient support within the AfD. However, it allows her to retain the reins of party power yet avoid what could be an embarrassing result. 

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Kay-Alexander Scholz is DW's Berlin correspondent

The AfD has been plagued by internal strife among its leadership, driving media speculation over who would be chosen as top candidate. Realistically, anyone who gets that job will only have it for a few months. Following this fall's election, the AfD is likely to end up in the opposition in parliament. Of course, there is a chance that the lead candidate will also head the party in the Bundestag and thus have the power to shape politics over the years. But as the AfD's co-chair, Petry is already in pole position, especially since the other co-chair, Jörg Meuthen, does not want a parliamentary seat. In any case, in her video announcement on Wednesday, Petry did not say that she would decline the role of parliamentary party leader.

Will Petry's strategy work?

Petry's retreat is thus only a partial one. In her video announcement, she argued for the necessity of her "proposal for the future" - outlined earlier this month amid criticism from fellow AfD leaders - that the party should agree on a binding strategy for the election. Now she is trying to show that she is acting for the good of the party and putting aside her personal ambitions, such as the chancellor candidacy.

More than ever before, she has refused to commit to the idea of compromise in order to gain political power. On the contrary, she has asked her party to decide whether or not it should "fundamentally" remain an opposition faction. The upcoming party congress will decide - the main thing is that it makes a decision. This is probably her way of mending ties with controversial Thuringian AfD leader Björn Höcke (whom she would like to see banned from the party for alleged Nazi sympathies, but that is another story entirely).

But Petry does not shy away from addressing the potential disadvantages of the AfD being an opposition party that takes a hard-line stance on the right wing of Germany's political spectrum: Fundamental opposition in parliament means a lengthy opposition, verbal spats that will discourage party supporters and ultimately a weakened AfD because other parties could adopt some of its positions, leading supporters to wrongly believe that the other parties "understand."

It is still not certain whether Petry's plan to resolve the AfD's election strategy issue will work. There are many party members who do not even want to put her "proposal for the future" on the agenda. But the party congress will ultimately decide and may even begin a new chapter in the AfD saga.

It's also worth mentioning that Petry is expecting a child in early summer - her fifth. Many have already asked themselves how she can balance motherhood, a newborn and an election campaign, but this was probably not a critical factor in her decision.

Read More: All you need to know about the German election 2017

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