ECONOMY

Moderate face of Germany’s AfD steps down as party shifts further right

The co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has announced he is standing down, after losing a long-running power struggle with hardliners in the party.

In a letter to AfD members on Monday, Jörg Meuthen, 60, who is also a member of the European Parliament, said he would not be running again for party leader at internal elections in December.

Meuthen, a former economics professor, has been co-leader of the AfD since the summer of 2015 and represented its more moderate face.

But he was increasingly at odds with other senior figures in the AfD, such as Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, leaders of the party’s parliamentary group, who are backed by influential hardliners, particularly in eastern Germany.

In his letter to party members, Meuthen described an “incredibly demanding time” as leader that had been marked by “some hardships and disappointments”. He vowed, however, “neither to fall silent nor to stop my political work”, without specifying what that might be.

Tensions and divisions have riven the AfD for years. Meuthen led a long-running campaign against “The Wing”, a hard-right movement within the party that was formed in 2015, and he was behind a successful attempt to expel one of The Wing’s most prominent members, Andreas Kalbitz, from the AfD in 2020.

The Wing, which was classified by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency as a rightwing extremist organisation in 2020 and formally placed under observation, was dissolved by the AfD executive board that same year. But another of its founders, Björn Höcke, head of the AfD in the central state of Thuringia, remains an influential force.

The AfD began as a Eurosceptic party but used anxiety over the 2015 influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly from war-torn Syria, to ride a populist wave into parliament. It became the Bundestag’s largest opposition party.

But its fortunes waned amid shifting public concerns during the coronavirus pandemic and its very public divisions. Its regional branches in Thuringia, Saxony, and several other states are under local surveillance by the domestic intelligence agency.

The party attempted to latch on to protest movements against the coronavirus lockdown as well as vaccine sceptic groups. It failed to leverage that alignment into better results in last month’s national elections, where its share of the vote fell to 10.3 per cent from 12.5 per cent in 2017.

The election outcome led to a very public split between Meuthen on the one hand and Weidel and Chrupalla on the other. At a press conference after the vote, Meuthen pointed to the nationwide results as proof of the need for a more moderate course, using the moment to skewer his more rightwing rivals and argue the party had “significant acceptance problems” with mainstream voters.

Weidel and Chrupalla said they were satisfied by the results, arguing they were being misrepresented in the media. Weidel argued the media “juiced the Greens to the top”. The Greens came in third with 14.8 per cent, after the centre-left Social Democrats in first and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in second.

Yet one aspect of last month’s elections suggest the party could continue to drift further to the right.

The best AfD results were in Thuringia, where it garnered more votes than any other party for the first time — 24 per cent. The AfD also came out top in Saxony, with 24.3 per cent.

Hardline party figures see the electoral results as proof that Meuthen’s approach failed. They argued that they adopted the more moderate style he called for in the campaign, using softer speaking voices in stump speeches and less aggressive campaign posters under the slogan “Germany. But normal.”

Meuthen is not the first AfD leader to step aside over similar disputes. In 2017, the then party leader Frauke Petry stepped down immediately after the Bundestag election, also over concerns that it was not distancing itself enough from hardline nationalists.

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