Analysis-Germany's far-right AfD closes ranks at party congress after scandals

By Sarah Marsh

ESSEN, Germany (Reuters) - As Marine Le Pen's National Rally was winning the first round of France's parliamentary election on Sunday, Germany's far-right AfD party was meeting to map its own route to electoral success.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) has a real chance of winning elections being held in three of Germany's 16 federal states in September, came second in Germany in last month's European Parliament election, and party membership is at a record high.

But its weekend congress in the western German city of Essen was largely about doubling down on core issues and closing ranks after a series of scandals in recent months that tarnished its image.

Although the AfD is particularly strong in eastern parts of Germany, its road to power is, for now at least, blocked by the refusal of other parties to join it in a coalition.

"We will form the government in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg so that we can turn this country upside down again, dear friends," co-leader Tino Chrupalla told the congress from a stage lined with national flags. "To do this, we need a united party."

Joerg Urban, head of the AfD in Saxony, said good results in the three eastern states in September might force other parties to work with it.

"The firewall has already disappeared more or less on a communal level," he told Reuters at the congress. "The state level is the next step."

Divisions within the party have in the past overshadowed AfD congresses, but it put on an unusually united show at the weekend.

Alice Weidel and Chrupalla were re-elected as co-leaders with 80% or more of the vote in uncontested elections, humorously exchanging terms of endearment such as "my beloved".

Mass protests erupted against the party earlier this year after a report revealed AfD officials had met right-wing extremists to discuss plans to deport millions of foreigners, even those with German passports.

Yet the party ended up scoring its best nationwide result so far in June, coming second on 15.9% in the European Parliament election.

Party membership is also up 60% in the past year-and-a-half to around 46,000, Chrupalla said.

Even so, tens of thousands of people outside the congress venue protested against the AfD, which is under state surveillance on suspicion of being a threat to democracy, reflecting growing polarisation in Germany.


Merchandise on display in the convention centre where the two-day congress was held reflected the party's outlook.

Jars of candies in the red, black and gold colours of the German flag were on sale, as was a T-shirt reading "Team Remigration" showing a plane taking off, stickers with the slogan "deportations protect women" and protein powder labelled an "unwoke based brand".

"The migration crisis has spiralled out of control," Weidel told the around 600 delegates, most of them men in suits.

"Foreigner crime and costs are going through the roof... more knife attacks, more murders, more rapes," she said, despite official statistics showing a mixed picture including a drop in murders.

Since its foundation 11 years ago as an anti-euro party, the AfD has switched to attack mass migration to "preserve" German culture and embrace patriotic discourse in a country where it was long taboo.

Its message resonates with many in a homogeneous society that has sought to integrate an influx of Middle Eastern and Ukrainian refugees even as it struggles to maintain living standards after blows to its economic model.

With voters' fears that the Ukraine war will escalate - because of Western support for Kyiv - likely to be a campaign issue in September's state elections, the AfD hardened its pro-Russia stance on Sunday.

It passed a resolution calling for an end to sanctions on Russia and to weapon deliveries to Ukraine, greater "emancipation" from the United States and a strengthening of the partnership with China.

"We are a party of peace," said Urban, in one of the final speeches before delegates stood to sing the national anthem.

There were also clear attempts at the congress to broaden its appeal and grow nationally.

There was a stand for members with migration backgrounds who wanted to fight "for Germany". Another stand was run by "liberal conservative women", although the new party executive became less diverse, with Weidel the only woman among its 14 members.

Weidel also talked up the skills of Germany's star player at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament, Jamal Musiala, born in Germany to a British-Nigerian father.

Again referencing Euro 2024, which Germany is hosting, Weidel played down scandals around the AfD's top European Parliament election candidate, Maximilian Krah. Krah had to step back from campaigning in May after saying that not all Nazi SS members were criminals, a comment that prompted the RN to say it would no longer sit with the AfD in the European Parliament.

Without naming Krah, Weidel said that sometimes even talented players needed to be benched but that did not mean they would be gone for good.

She dismissed as "child's poop" a scandal around another AfD delegate, Thuringia leader Bjoern Hoecke, who was convicted in May for using Nazi language.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; editing by Matthias Williams and Timothy Heritage)