SOME political parties have a habit of airing their dirty linen in public. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is one of them. At its conference in Cologne this weekend the total marginalisation of Frauke Petry, its co-chair and until now most prominent figure, played out in plain view. She scowled as delegates threw out her plan to detoxify the party and write anti-racism into its programme. As Jörg Meuthen, her co-chair, railed against multiculturalism from the podium she looked blankly into middle distance, then remained seated during the standing ovation. Shortly afterwards she walked out of the hall. And this afternoon, as the party leadership posed for photographs with its two newly elected “lead candidates” for September’s general election, she remained seated once again; out on the edge of the long panel. Marginalised.
The man in the centre was Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in the state of Brandenburg and one of the two lead candidates (the other is Alice Weidel, a former Goldman Sachs banker from Baden-Württemberg). He is the new master of the AfD, a development with wide-reaching implications for the party and German politics.
One of its original founders back when it was an outfit for intellectual conservatives opposed to the euro, he has tracked its move rightwards and towards protest politics. He considered Ms Petry’s detoxification bid as an unnecessary and heavy-handed power grab, and said so publicly. He led the opposition to her attempts (now presumedly shelved) to expel Björn Höcke, the party’s leader in Thuringia who criticised the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and advocated a “180 degree turn” in Germany’s culture of remembrance. This all culminated in the much-briefed-against Ms Petry’s announcement four days ago that she would not seek to be the AfD’s lead candidate—and the subsequent Gaulandisation of the party in Cologne this weekend.
Ms Petry remains the AfD co-chair but her influence has been shredded and she says she will leave the election to others (she may attempt a comeback afterwards, or even quit and form a new party). So now Mr Gauland will dominate the election campaign. Notionally the joint ticket with Ms Weidel—half his age, a westerner, worldly, relatively liberal and a lesbian—provides a balance between different factions in the party and prevents the tweedy Mr Gauland from putting off younger or more moderate voters. Yet she owes her place on the ticket to him, has some powerful enemies on the party’s right (she was for the expulsion of Mr Höcke) and is much less experienced. Meanwhile Mr Meuthen, like Ms Weidel a Baden-Württemberg moderate, is a good friend of Mr Gauland and has won the affections of the grass roots by speaking like him: bringing them to their feet on Saturday by ruling out coalitions (though he tells me that might change in the future) and lamenting the passing of the Germany of his grandparents’ generation.
What, then does Mr Gauland’s AfD look like? It is a pure opposition party, rejecting coalitions at state and federal level. It provokes and embraces outrage. It focuses heavily on issues like refugees, national security and Islam, which according to the programme adopted in Cologne, “is not German”. It covers a very broad spectrum of the right: from small-statists who might otherwise vote for the tax-cutting FDP to ultranationalists who might otherwise vote for the extreme-right NPD. Its centre of gravity is the former-communist east, where authoritarian politics tends to do better. Its legislators in the state parliaments (and from September, in all likelihood, the Bundestag) make angry speeches that do well on YouTube, but achieve little of substance.
So Mr Gauland’s AfD is not the threat to the mainstream parties that Ms Petry’s reformed AfD might have been. To be sure, rejecting her strategy buys the AfD more freedom from compromise and keeps the grass roots happy. But unless Ms Weidel manages to strong-arm Mr Gauland and present a genuinely moderate and fresh face, it also makes the party off-putting to all but its core voters and raises the chances of new sagas like the Höcke one; after all, he is by no means the most right-wing figure in the party. And there is no guarantee that the infighting that has contributed to the party’s declining support—from around 13-14% to around 8-9% in polls, despite the Berlin terror attack in December—is now over. Whether Ms Weidel and Mr Gauland can get on, whether Ms Petry can really leave the party to them, whether the next far-right scandal divides the AfD as much Mr Höcke’s comments did—all this will become clear in the next few months.