BAUTZEN, Germany – Leaders of the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany pledged Monday to use their third-place election finish to conduct robust but “constructive” opposition, and sought to allay fears raised by Jewish groups and others about their entry into parliament.
However, long-running cracks at the top of the party, known by its German acronym AfD, erupted in public when co-chairwoman Frauke Petry — one of AfD’s best-known faces but sidelined over recent months — stormed out of a press conference. That left three other top party leaders chuckling and smirking, but briefly speechless.
“An anarchic party … can be successful in opposition, but it cannot make voters a credible offer for government.” Petry said, adding she wouldn’t join AfD’s parliamentary caucus. She walked out of the room without taking questions.
Co-chairman Joerg Meuthen apologized “on behalf of the party” for the episode, saying it was “not discussed with us,” before moving on. Persistent leadership infighting so far has failed to do the party significant harm.
Germany’s mainstream parties have all ruled out teaming up with AfD, which is one of six caucuses in the new parliament after winning 12.6 percent of the vote. Including the seat Petry won, it has 94 of the 709 seats.
Co-leader Alice Weidel told reporters their plan was to provide “constructive opposition.”
“We have a very clear mandate from the voters, and there is no time to waste,” she said.
AfD drew support from people who previously voted for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc and from many who didn’t previously vote at all. To a lesser extent, it also drained support from the center-left Social Democrats and others.
Its success followed a campaign focused on criticism of the chancellor’s decision to open the country’s doors to more than 1 million asylum-seekers over the past two years. It performed most strongly in Germany’s formerly communist and less prosperous east, capturing 22.5 percent of the vote there — 27 percent among male voters.
In the eastern town of Bautzen, which saw clashes last year between residents and migrants, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union lost a seat it had held for more than 25 years to AfD, whose candidate received 32.8 percent of the vote.
Merkel told reporters Monday that the AfD’s support in the east was mirrored in some economically depressed areas of the west by voters with similar worries.
“It’s simply fear of losing out, and concern that what they have today could be lost, be it through globalization, be it through sharing with refugees,” she said.
Bautzen is located in Saxony, Petry’s home state and long an AfD stronghold. Across the state, AfD narrowly topped Merkel’s CDU to become the strongest party, winning 27 percent of the vote.
Petry turned AfD from opposing eurozone bailouts to a focus on migration after she ousted the party’s founding leader in 2015, but recently had been sidelined after urging AfD to exclude members who express extremist views, with the aim of attracting moderate voters. While she said she wouldn’t join the parliamentary group, she didn’t say she was leaving the party.
Later in the day, Weidel urged Petry to leave the party to “prevent further harm,” saying her walking out was “hard to beat in terms of irresponsibility.”
Co-leader Alexander Gauland sought Monday to allay fears expressed by Jewish groups about his party’s success. The Anti-Defamation League also called the AfD result a “disturbing milestone,” saying “its leaders have made anti-Semitic statements and played down the evil of the Nazi regime.”
Among other statements that have caused concern, AfD’s leader in Thuringia state, Bjoern Hoecke, called for a “U-turn” in the way Germany remembers its Nazi past, while Gauland himself has repeatedly insisted “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of Germans soldiers in two world wars.”
Still, Gauland insisted that “there is nothing in our party, in our program, that could disturb the Jewish people who live here in Germany.”
He added that he hadn’t met with Jewish leaders, but was “ready at any time” to do so.
He also dismissed concerns that AfD’s rise was somehow linked to a wider swing to the right in Europe and the U.S.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders both were quick to congratulate AfD on entering parliament.
“I don’t think that these parties are at all comparable, and that there is some kind of a mobilization of nationalist parties across Europe,” Gauland said. “Mr. Trump has neither helped us nor hindered us, because we have different problems than the Americans, and Ms. Le Pen’s defeat in the end didn’t hurt us because France has different problems.”
He added that Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party is “the only party where there is a closer relationship.”