The leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany has resigned and quit the party, in protest at what he called its drift towards rightwing radicalism.
Jörg Meuthen, a 60-year-old former economics professor, had been a co-leader of the AfD since 2015 and was considered a relative moderate – one of the few in a party that has steadily tackled to the right since its creation in 2013 .
In a statement, Meuthen said large parts of the party “have chosen a course that is ever more radical, ever more uninhibited”. They had, he said, adopted “political positions and verbal aberrations that have left the party utterly isolated and driven it ever further towards the political margins”.
Speaking later to ARD TV, he said he had lost a long power struggle over the AfD’s future direction. “The heart of the party beats very far to the right these days,” he said, adding that parts of the AfD rejected Germany’s constitutional order: “I see clear echoes there of totalitarianism.” The AfD will hold a leadership election in the next few months.
Meuthen had clashed with fellow AfD leaders over the party’s position on the coronavirus pandemic, particularly the claim made by some that Germany was in the grip of a “corona dictatorship”.
The AfD strongly protested against the lockdowns imposed in the first year of the pandemic and has helped to organize widespread demonstrations against measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. It is also fiercely opposed to government plans to introduce compulsory vaccinations.
Formed in 2013 by Eurosceptics opposed to the bailout of Greece during the eurozone debt crisis, the AfD rode a wave of popular anger over the influx of more than a million refugees from north Africa and the Middle East into Germany in 2015-16 and gradually began to adopt a more nationalist, xenophobic tone.
It won 12.6 per cent of the vote in 2017’s national elections and became the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. But its gradual rightward drift damaged its popularity, and in last September’s election its share of the vote declined to 10.3 per cent.
Meuthen, who was elected leader in 2015, found it increasingly difficult to assert his authority in a party that is now dominated by radicals such as the nationalist firebrand Björn Höcke, its leader in the eastern state of Thuringia.
In a tweet, Höcke said he respected Meuthen’s decision to quit and said he wished him “the contentment that he could not find in the party.”
Meuthen said he will keep the seat in the European Parliament that he has held since 2017. The politician has come under pressure in recent months over a long-running donations scandal in the party, and this week a committee of the European Parliament voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity, allowing prosecutors in Berlin to initiate legal proceedings. Meuthen denies any wrongdoing.
Meuthen is the latest in a long line of AfD leaders who have gone down to defeat in power struggles with the party’s powerful rightwing.
Its founder Bernd Lucke, a Eurosceptic economics professor from Hamburg, was ousted by hardliners in 2015 and soon afterwards left the party.
Frauke Petry, who replaced him as a co-leader, followed suit after the Bundestag election in 2017. She had sought to steer the party away from a policy of “fundamental opposition” towards greater pragmatism, and to distance it more clearly from the far -right.