Germany AfD: Right-wing party picks election leaders

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cologne Saturday to demonstrate against the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is holding its party conference in the city.

Activists protest against Germany's anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AFD) before the AFD's party congress in Cologne, Germany, April 22, 2017.

Around 50,000 left-wing protesters are expected and about 4,000 police officers are on the ground in Cologne to prevent a violent escalation of anti-populist rallies.

Petry earlier this week said she would not be the party's lead candidate in the election.

Simone Peter, a leading member of the Green party, told the Rheinische Post newspaper that with Petry's decision, the AfD was "skinning itself".

The AfD has seen its support plummet as the refugee influx to Germany has slowed in recent months after Chancellor Angela Merkel let in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015.

As the congress began, AfD co-leader Frauke Petry failed in her bid to rally members behind a more moderate-sounding programme based on pragmatic "Realpolitik" meant to shut down the party's more extremist voices.

Part of the AfD's leadership team since 2015, Petry said in a video message on Facebook that she is "not available either as top candidate or as part of a team".

"I will step aside during the campaign, as that's what the party congress apparently wants", Petry said, while pledging to remain party co-chairwoman "for now".

The party, now represented in 11 of Germany's 16 states, aims to sign off on a programme that will pave the way for it to enter the national parliament for the first time in its four-year history.

AfD looks set to turn further right after its co-leader, who has struck a more moderate tone of late, suffered a defeat when delegates refused to discuss her motion to shift the party into the "mainstream".

However, at the start of the congress meeting her motion to discuss forging alliances with other parties was voted down by the majority of the delegates.

"We want to keep our home country, keep our identity, and we are proud to be German", said Gauland in his acceptance speech. She ousted fellow founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, shifting the party's focus from economic issues to immigration and Islam.

The AfD previous year endorsed an election manifesto that says Islam is not compatible with Germany's constitution. She also irked some rivals by leading an effort to expel Bjoern Hoecke, AfD's regional leader in the eastern Thuringia state, after he suggested that Germany stop acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past.

She has tried to move away from the party's far-right ideology as "fundamental" opposition and is keen to join coalitions in order to get into power.

  • Leroy Wright