German far-right airs divisions over leader’s criticism

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Joerg Meuthen, federal spokesman, speaks at the Federal Party Conference of the AfD in Kalkar, Germany, Sunday, Nov.29, 2020. (Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa via AP)

BERLIN (AP) — A leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party on Sunday defended a speech in which he denounced “provocateurs,” called for discipline and questioned talk of a “corona dictatorship.”

A bitter debate at a party convention over a motion to “condemn (co-leader Joerg) Meuthen’s divisive conduct” saw Alternative for Germany, or AfD, publicly air deep divisions before a national election expected next September. In the end, delegates decided by about 53% to 47% not to put it to a vote.

AfD won 12.6% of the vote and entered parliament in Germany’s 2017 election, helped by strident criticism of a large influx of migrants. Recent polls show its support sagging to between 7% and 11%.

In recent months, the party has opposed coronavirus restrictions that are supported by a majority of Germans, but opposed by a small though vocal minority. It also has seen persistent tension between its strong hard-right wing and more moderate figures such as Meuthen.

The party is under pressure to distance itself from extremists in its midst after facing growing scrutiny from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. It also has faced scrutiny over an incident this month in which anti-lockdown protesters were able to enter the parliament building and harangue lawmakers.

At a convention at Kalkar in western Germany — held in person, unlike other parties’ recent gatherings, but at authorities’ insistence with masks and distancing — Meuthen gave a speech Saturday in which he called for “internal discipline” and “impeccable behavior” from all members.

He questioned the wisdom of uncritical closeness to demonstrations against anti-virus restrictions that have drawn a wide variety of attendees, including conspiracy theorists. And he asked: “Is it really wise to speak of a ‘corona dictatorship?’” That phrase has been used by the influential leader of AfD’s parliamentary group, Alexander Gauland.

The speech angered many members. In Sunday’s debate, lawmaker Stephan Brandner described it as “a torpedo” that “did serious damage to our party and this convention.”

“You are dividing the party,” he told Meuthen. “You are only helping the old parties.”

Meuthen insisted that he hadn’t spoken out against anti-restriction demonstrations as a whole or called for division.

“I wholeheartedly want our party’s success … but we will only achieve this success with serious appearances,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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