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Politics

Crises mount for Germany's euroskeptical AfD

Germany's new euroskeptical AfD party accomplished a lot in a short time, securing 4.7 percent of the vote in its first electoral campaign, just shy of the 5 percent threshold. But is it already disintegrating?

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is under pressure from all sides. One of its local leaders in the German state of Hesse is accused of having right-wing extremist sympathies, and numerous internal disagreements are dividing the party founded just last year.

All the while, the euro - the party's main object of contempt - has proven robust despite the challenges the eurozone has faced so far. The AfD's diminished standing in the opinion polls is a reflection of its current internal turmoil.

Trouble in Hesse

Most of the talk right now centers on the AfD's branch in the German state of Hesse. Its state treasurer, Peter Ziemann, is accused of issuing a warning online about criminal immigrants eroding society, and referring to "vermin" in the same context. He is also reported to have said, "The socialism of today that calls itself democracy will have to suffer the same fate as the Eastern Bloc."

Many people regarded this statement as contravening the values of the German constitution - yet it won approval from the AfD chairman in Hesse, Volker Bartz, who called it "philosophically interesting."

The party's federal leader, Bernd Lucke, responded by stripping Ziemann of his office and suggesting that Bartz step down- a suggestion that was also related to some questionable behavior by Bartz in his last job. Confidential e-mail correspondence between Lucke and Bartz was leaked to the press. Ultimately, the AfD head decided to remove Bartz from office as his chairmanship was causing "serious damage to the party."

Bernd Lucke (photo: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)

Lucke was popular right after the German elections - now, some AfD members don't like him as much

The problems with the leadership in Hesse reveal just some of the internal divides threatening to bring the party to its knees.

"We managed to attract some really good people, but also some we don't like as much," the AfD's deputy national chairman, Konrad Adam, told DW. "But every party has to deal with those people. They came to us, to a newly founded party, in particularly large numbers, and particularly in Hesse."

Unwanted party members up top

According to Adam, there is no room for such people in his party. "They're what fisherman call by-catch," he said. "Sometimes, things get caught in the nets and you have to toss them back into the sea."

But that's easier said than done. Some of these unwanted party members could trouble the party for quite some time, as they have made it to leading party positions.

Adam's attempt at explaining how they were able to rise to the top in the first place does not exactly reinforce trust in the AfD's party structures or inner-party election processes. "Candidates introduce themselves for 10 minutes and then you decide who to vote for. Coincidence plays quite a big role, and that's how these people were able to win offices," Adam said. "Most of the members don't know much more about them than the candidates' names and faces. They don't actually know who they're voting for."

Dr. Konrad Adam (photo: M. C. Hurek)

Failing to make it into parliament could threaten the party's existance, says Adam

The party's public image is another problem, as many voters don't even know who the AfD's candidates are. Most Germans have heard of the party's national chairman Bernd Lucke, but "few other figures are generally well-known," said Manfred Güllner who heads opinion research institute Forsa. "The AfD lacks a public figure like [Austrian politician Jörg] Haider. Then they could become a real threat to the other parties."

Lucke doesn't have nearly as much charisma as the far-right politician Haider, who died in 2008. And criticism against Lucke is growing, says Güllner. "Lucke helped the AfD in the run-up to the national elections, because he helped make them popular," he said. "But now he has proven to be a missionary who's not liked by everyone anymore."

Will they make it?

According to a representative Forsa poll, the AfD is currently hovering at around 4 percent. This is the first time since the national elections that the euroskeptics have fallen below the 5 percent threshold in the opinion polls. Does that mean the party won't stand a chance of entering the European Parliament after the European elections on May 24?

Not necessarily. Parties only need to clear a 3 percent threshold to make it into the European Parliament. And the actual voter turnout will play an important role as well. "Considering that the turnout for the European election will probably be very low - possibly less than 40 percent - 750,000 votes would be enough to get 3 percent of all votes," Güllner said. He added that chances of this are actually good, since two million people voted for the AfD in Germany's national elections.

The party's recent internal struggles could turn off potential voters, though. And a lot could happen in the four and a half months leading up to the elections. If they gain less than 3 percent and fail to make it into parliament, it "could threaten the party's existence", the AfD's Adam admitted.

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