Germany’s Euroskeptics split this weekend as a leadership contest saw party founder Bernd Lucke forced out.
At a conference of the Alternative für Deutschland in Essen on Saturday, Lucke won only 38 percent support against 60 percent who favored Frauke Petry, a former businesswoman.
Lucke, an economy professor who has been the face of the party since it was founded in 2013, said he would poll his supporters to see if they wanted to start a new party.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of the German Industry Association and a prominent member of the party’s delegation in the European Parliament, resigned from the Alternative, saying Petry’s victory marked a “rightward shift” and an embrace of “vulgarity, protest and prejudice.”
Petry represents the wing that advocates a more conservative, nationalist platform to challenge the ruling Christian Democrats from the right.
Lucke, by contrast, is more of a classical liberal who wanted to keep opposition to the euro currency as the party’s central policy.
The Alternative‘s name refers to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous insistence that there was “no alternative” to bailing out Greece and other countries in the periphery of the eurozone to save the single currency. The party initially won support from right-wing Germans who believed rescuing Greece wasn’t worth breaking the currency union’s “no bailout” rule.
But the anti-immigrant and socially conservative rhetoric of Petry and her supporters appears to be more popular with voters.
After failing to clear the 5 percent threshold to win seats in the national parliament in 2013, the party scored several victories in state elections in the former East Germany the following year. It won 9.7 percent support in Saxony, 10.6 percent support in Thuringia and 12.2 percent support in Brandenburg.
Tensions between Lucke’s and Petry’s camps emerged when the former spoke out in favor of a transatlantic free-trade agreement with the United States. The nationalist wing was critical, mirroring the protectionist instincts of Euroskeptic parties outside Germany.
What brought the split to a head were mass protests against the feared Islamization of Germany in the city of Dresden last year.
Lucke urged his party to distance itself from the protesters who called themselves Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes and were widely denounced as xenophobic by the mainstream parties. Petry opposed a ban on contact with the group and argued for a more sympathetic response.
There does appear to be space for both a liberally Euroskeptic and nationalist conservative party in Germany.
Liberals voters have nowhere to go since the Free Democrats imploded in 2013. Traditionally the third party in German politics, it was cannibalized by Merkel’s Christian Democrats and eclipsed by the Greens. Lucke could conceivably take their place.
The very move to the center that allowed Merkel’s party to win almost an absolute majority of the seats in parliament for the first time has also left a gap on the right. Reactionary votes disapprove of Merkel’s more relaxed views on family and her green energy agenda and complain that her conservatives really aren’t conservative anymore. Under Petry, they might find a new home in the Alternative.