In recent weeks, there’s been no shortage of speculation about Frauke Petry, the co-chair and most recognizable face of the right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party.
Whether she would distance the party from extreme-right ideologies; whether she would be its lead candidate in the federal elections on September 24; and even whether she might abandon politics altogether.
Ms. Petry ended some of that speculation Wednesday when she announced, per video on her Facebook page, that she would not lead the AfD in the elections.
“I will not be available for a lead candidacy on my own or for participation in a lead team,” Ms. Petry said. She also questioned whether a party like the AfD, which most likely will end up in the opposition, really needed a “largely symbolic” lead candidate in the first place.
The surprise decision comes ahead of a AfD party congress in Cologne this weekend to decide on its lead candidate, and amid an escalating power struggle within the party that has seen its leader becoming increasingly isolated.
“I will not be available for a lead candidacy on my own or for participation in a lead team.”
Ms. Petry is facing backlash in her party from pursuing a “realpolitik” policy that envisions turning the AfD into a potential coalition partner for Germany’s mainstream parties. That would require distancing the party from its far-right ideologies. A recently leaked motion signed by the leader called for adding a line in the party’s manifesto saying there was “no space for racist, anti-Semitic and nationalist ideologies.”
The call for a more pragmatic election strategy is viewed by observers as an attempt to make the AfD more appealing to moderate voters, especially those scared away by the extreme-right rhetoric of other top officials. In January, Björn Höcke, the regional party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, caused an uproar when he said, “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”
Ms. Petry has been maneuvering to push Mr. Höcke out of the party ever since – so far to no avail. In fact, he could be gaining the upper hand. Mr. Höcke was part of a group of far right-wing party members, including co-founder Alexander Gauland and Saxony-Anhalt regional leader André Poggenburg, who met secretly last week to discuss how to push Ms. Petry to the sidelines, according to Spiegel Online.
The group, which favors a team of candidates as opposed to one to lead the party in the elections, also included the economist Alice Weidel, a member of the AfD in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Shortly after Ms. Petry’s announcement, the party’s state spokesman in Baden-Württemberg told Der Tagesspiegel that Ms. Weidel “is an optimal candidate for our top team.”
The group fundamentally opposes Ms. Petry’s realpolitik strategy; it wants the AfD to remain staunchly in the opposition.
Last month, the AfD party leader hinted in an interview with Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication, that she might leave politics altogether. After more than four years with the AfD that have “consumed a lot of energy,” Ms. Petry said it may be time to step back and adjust her life.
Ms. Petry is expecting a child together with her husband Marcus Pretzell, the AfD regional party leader in North-Rhine Westphalia. Both previously married politicians have eight children together.
Voters appear increasingly turned off by the AfD’s highly public turf wars and concerned over the party’s direction. Recent polls show the party’s national approval rating now in the single digits, down from a high of 13 percent just several weeks ago.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, the AfD later became a provocative voice of the populist right, with Ms. Petry putting it on a more starkly nationalist, anti-refugee course.
The question now is who will to lead the party and in what direction.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelblatt Global. To contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org