Berlin (AFP) – A long simmering row between the leaders of Germany’s far-right AfD party and its radical fringe has boiled over, sapping their strength as Chancellor Angela Merkel climbs in the polls.
As voters look for steady leadership amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Alternative for Germany party, which had capitalised on fears linked to the large 2015-16 refugee influx, has struggled to keep a lid on increasingly toxic infighting.
A feud between populist ultra-conservatives and elements in the party with ties to the right-wing extremist scene came to a head over the weekend after the party board ousted one of its state leaders, Andreas Kalbitz.
Kalbitz, who ran the AfD’s operations in Brandenburg, the large rural state surrounding Berlin, had concealed his past membership in a neo-Nazi outfit, “German Youths Loyal to the Fatherland”.
The censure spearheaded by the party’s relatively moderate co-leader Joerg Meuthen was seen as part of a strategy to maintain the AfD as a viable alternative for middle-class voters turned off by an association with radical skinheads.
“We are a traditional conservative party,” Meuthen, an economics professor, told ARD public television.
“We need to demonstrate cohesion but we also need to clearly distance ourselves from extreme-right positions.”
– ‘Political mistake’ –
Kalbitz ominously warned the party had committed a “political mistake” and vowed to challenge his ouster in court.
“If this decision was motivated by the hope of being accepted by the established parties and our political rivals, it will fail,” he told ARD.
Kalbitz’s expulsion sparked an outcry among the most radical AfD faction led by Bjoern Hoecke, who is believed to represent about one-third of the party’s supporters and whose star has been rising for months.
Deploying rhetoric resonant of 1930s fascism, Hoecke posted a video message accusing the AfD leadership of “treason against the party”.
“I will not allow our party to be divided and destroyed — and I know our members and our voters see this the same way I do,” he said.
The party’s leader in AfD stronghold Saxony, Joerg Urban, threw his support behind Kalbitz while MP Frank Pasemann wrote on Facebook that “Meuthen and co. are undermining the principles of the rule of law to banish a valued party colleague”.
Meuthen hit back on Sunday, saying Hoecke should “watch his own behaviour instead of accusing other people of ‘treason'”.
The AfD power struggle escalated in March when the radical fringe around Hoecke known as the “Wing” was placed under police surveillance due to association with known neo-Nazis and suspicion of posing a “threat” to German democracy.
The AfD managing board, which started out seven years ago as a eurosceptic outfit before shifting focus to immigration, scrambled to isolate the radicals.
In early April, Meuthen floated the idea of a formal schism but backed down in the face of an uproar within the party.
– ‘Exploiting the demonstrations’ –
The discord has led the party to shed support among conflict-averse German voters, against the backdrop of the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although it remains strong in the economically depressed ex-communist east, the AfD is struggling in the rest of the country and currently polling at about 10 percent, down from nearly 13 percent in the 2017 general election.
Meanwhile Merkel, whose resignation the AfD has demanded for years, has garnered international praise for her handling of the outbreak.
Her Christian Democrats have surged to 38 percent support, as voters say they trust the veteran leader and trained scientist to see them through the crisis, which has been far less devastating in Germany than for many of its European partners.
The AfD has tried to harness the anger of a small but vocal minority who have staged noisy protests against the stay-at-home measures imposed to fight the virus. Several thousand people took to the streets across Germany on Saturday.
“We are seeing a trend in which extremists, particularly those on the right, are exploiting the demonstrations,” the head of the domestic intelligence service, Thomas Haldenwang, told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Germany stayed close to a three-week low as the country begins gradually lifting pandemic-related lockdown measures.
There were 1,388 new cases in the 24 hours through Wednesday morning, bringing the total to 148,453, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Fatalities rose by 224, the most in four days, to 5,086. The death rate is now at 3.4%, while the number of people who have recovered rose to almost 100,000, the most of any nation.
Governments across Europe have started taking initial steps toward reopening their economies, with Germany among the first to cautiously revive business activity this week. Smaller shops can start serving customers again, and schools will gradually reopen with some students taking exams allowed to return.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that too hasty an easing may prompt a second outbreak that requires further measures to contain transmission. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday that it’s too early to decide on relaxing travel restrictions, and Munich canceled the Oktoberfest beer festival for the first time since World War II.
“We are living in different times, and living with corona means living carefully,” Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder said.
Merkel has identified the reproduction factor — known by epidemiologists as R-naught — as a means of gauging how successfully countries have kept the virus in check and how much stress it could place on health services.
Germany’s R0 was unchanged at 0.9 on Tuesday, according to the latest situation report from the country’s public health authority. That means that each person with the virus infects an average of 0.9 other people.
Customers wait in a queue to receive a protective mask before they are allowed to enter a bicycle shop, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Sankt Augustin near Bonn, Germany, April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
April 22, 2020
BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 2,237 to 145,694, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Wednesday, marking a second consecutive day of new infections accelerating.
The reported death toll rose by 281 to 4,879, the tally showed.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)
A woman with a protective mask is seen, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Munich, Germany, April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
April 21, 2020
BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 1,785 to 143,457, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Tuesday, marking a slight increase in the number of new infections after two days of declines.
New infections had increased by 1,775 on Monday.
The reported death toll rose by 194 to 4,598, the tally showed on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Riham Alkousaa)