When the AfD was founded two years ago, the party struck a chord with entrepreneurs and people who run their own businesses. The organization of family businesses, for example, invited its founder, Bernd Lucke, to a discussion on issues.
Back then, it was primarily a protest party against the euro-rescue politics of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Heinrich Weiss, former chair of the BDI German industry federation and major shareholder of the SMS industry group, even identified with the new party. He called the AfD an alternative to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the “socialist line” of their coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats.
The AfD rose in parallel with the decline of Germany’s classic liberals, the Free Democratic Party. Along the way, it was helped by its appeal to right-wing populists who support dissolution of the euro zone and oppose immigration policies.
Today, however, that association and the inner turmoil is hurting the AfD among business leaders like Mr. Weiss, who are keeping the party at a distance.
“It is a tragedy how the AfD has been taking itself apart for weeks,” Mr. Weiss told Handelsblatt. “While the Greece crisis is escalating, the AfD should have aggressively presented euro criticism as its core message. Now the FDP and AfD must clearly assert themselves and draw a line with all right-wing elements.”
“Hope is the last to die.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Lucke tried to signal a clear separation from the right. His “Wakeup Call 2015” initiative – with FDP comrades including former BDI president Hans-Olaf Henkel – has been seen as an invitation to more moderate AfD members to consider an exit from the party’s swing to the right.
Among them are many self-employed business owners like Hans Wall, founder of Wall PLC and an AfD member.
“Mr. Lucke doesn’t want to have the right-wing tendencies in the AfD,” Mr. Wall said. “It’s a good approach, even if it costs a few percentage points in support.”
Reiner Rohlje, owner of a mid-size company, is also disenchanted with the party’s direction. “At the beginning, I received a lot of support from people who generate the GDP,” said Mr. Rohlje who has since resigned as deputy to Marcus Pretzell, the nationalist right-wing AfD chief in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Equally frustrated is Mr. Pretzell’s second former deputy, Manfred Pühringer. The business consultant said, however, he would wait and see whether the AfD would still let itself be defined by the right wing. “Hope is last to die,” he said.
Mr. Lucke’s Wakeup Call is meant to court these frustrated people.
“Don’t leave, but rather come and join us, so that together we can negotiate in a coordinated and reflective way,” he wrote in a letter to AfD members. “We should wait and see before making a decision which points will be set at the federal party conference.”
But Mr. Lucke’s opponents on the right, Frauke Petry and Alexander Gauland, the regional AfD chairs in the states of Saxony and Brandenburg, see that as a threat to secede.
Passages of Wakeup Call 2015 read like the founding statute of a new party, even though Mr. Lucke vehemently denies that. He said his goal is to keep the AfD together “so it does not just degenerate into a protest party.”
The Wakeup initiative is explicitly courting Ms. Petry, who, however, considers the association unsuitable to unite the battling wings of the party
She also questions whether it is compatible with AfD bylaws. At the party conference in June, Ms. Petry did not rule out running against Mr. Lucke for the party’s leadership.
Entrepreneurs like Mr. Weiss, however, have been losing their patience with the AfD in light of continuing quarrels.
“If the FDP continues to recover, the party would clearly be an alternative for me again.”
“Fortunately, the head of the Free Democratic Party, Christian Lindner, has taken a clear stand toward Greece and the euro,” he said.
If the FDP continues to recover, the party “would clearly be an alternative for me again,” Mr. Weiss said.
Election researcher Richard Hilmer also sees the FDP as having the most to gain from the AfD’s struggles.
Mr. Lindner, the FDP chief, sharply criticized the Greek government at a recent party conference. “More dangerous than Greece leaving the euro zone is having Greece stay under false conditions,” he warned.
If Europe went too far in accommodating Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, that would be “an economic program for left-wing populists” in other E.U. countries, Mr. Lindner said.
The success of the AfD under Mr. Lucke has cost the FDP support in the past by questioning the party’s economic competence. Mr. Lindner frequently attacks the AfD, taking aim in particular at Mr. Lucke’s autocratic leadership style.
Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Till Hoppe is a policy correspondent also in Berlin. Anja Müller covers small- and medium-sized businesses. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com