Even after its unprecedented success in September, when it won 12.6 percent of the national vote, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) appears to be facing an internal crisis as more and more representatives leave the far-right party citing the growing influence of its extremist, nationalist wing.
As AfD members took their seats in the Bundestag for the first time on Tuesday, the parliamentary group was already down two seats from the 94 it won on September 24. Party leader Frauke Petry (pictured) jumped ship the morning after the election , followed by newly-elected MP Mario Mieruch 10 days later. Several more state level parliamentarians have also left since the election.
Unsurprisingly, Petry — who had been with the AfD since it formed in 2013 — was subject to much vitriol from former party colleagues and AfD supporters after her departure. She has since founded a new right-wing political movement, the Blue Party, and took to Facebook last weekend to counter (and mock) some of her critics.
"It is permitted for people to leave parties, even for chairpeople," she wrote witheringly. "I helped to build up this party since the end of 2012 and invested a lot of private money, as did many members from 2013."
'Cultural patriotism' not nationalism
She also reiterated her reasons for leaving, first stated during her abbreviated appearance alongside the rest of the AfD leadership at a press conference on the morning after the election. "Internally I have for a long time indicated that I see the development of the AfD with concern, and have made suggestions for improvement that were not listened to because too many functionaries were afraid of losing power in the party," she wrote. "For me this power was less important than my political credibility."
It was no secret that Petry had always wanted to steer the AfD toward realpolitikand potential government and away from simple populism, but — considering that the party used simple anti-Islam sloganeering to achieve its electoral success — that increasingly seemed like a losing battle. In an interview with online news portal n-tv on October 20, Petry said she wanted the Blue Party to show "a clear signal against increasing ethnopatriotism."
"We need cultural patriotism that does not cross the boundary to nationalism," Petry said. "I see clear tendencies of that in the AfD."
Mieruch made a similar statement when he left the party in early October, telling the Bild newspaper that he had seen a development in the AfD "that many in the party view with concern, and that they have hoped for far too long would be reversible."
He has also joined the Blues, but whether Petry's incipient party becomes viable will depend on whether other AfD Bundestag members join her.
'Point of no return'
The AfD has won representation in 14 state parliaments since it was founded in 2013, but 26 of the party's 174 state legislators have left — many of them since Petry's departure. In some states, such as North Rhine-Westphalia, which used to have 16 AfD parliamentarians and now has 13, losing any more members could cost the group its official funding.
Among the more notable recent departures was Anette Schultner, chair of the "Christians in the AfD" group, which had sought to square the party's anti-immigrant stance with Christian principles. Schultner quit after she found out that a member of her bloc had donated money to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party and her colleagues sought to play the contribution down. "The AfD is beyond the point of no return," Schultner told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Central to many members' concerns has been the growing power of Björn Höcke, the ex-teacher who leads the AfD's Thuringia branch, and who made headlines earlier this year by calling for a "180-degree reversal" of Germany's "politics of remembrance" surrounding the Holocaust and saying Africans have biologically different reproductive habits from Europeans.
Höcke has survived several attempts to throw him out of the AfD — Petry, for example, described him as a "burden" to the party — and he remains closely allied to the AfD's Bundestag leader, Alexander Gauland.
As one unnamed Bavarian member of the AfD told the regional newspaper OVB this week, Höcke's elevation to the party's leadership level, which has been mooted as a possibility at an upcoming party conference, would represent a red line. "Then I'd be out," he said. "We can't have that."