Hundreds of people rallied on Saturday in protest against the far-right Alternative for Germany in the western German city of Brunswick where the AfD gathered to elect new leaders.
Riot police fenced off the Volkswagen Halle sports venue hosting some 550 AfD delegates to keep leftist protesters waving rainbow flags and banners reading “Against the AfD and its incitement” from reaching the building.
Party co-leader Alexander Gauland said in an opening speech that the AfD’s goal was to move from the opposition to government, at least at the regional level.
The AfD is the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag national parliament, which it entered for the first time in 2017, propelled by voters angry at conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit almost one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers.
The AfD also sits on opposition benches in all of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, where it is ostracized by all established parties, including Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
“They call us Nazis, fascists and right-wing terrorists,” said Gauland. “But we need to be wise and resilient. The day will come when a weakened CDU has only one option: us.”
Merkel’s conservatives have said they cannot work with the party, saying its anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric contributes to an atmosphere of hate that encourages political violence.
Gauland, 78 and seen as a unifying figure in the AfD, has indicated he might run again for the leadership if he doubts the quality of the candidates.
His leadership partner, European Parliament lawmaker Joerg Meuthen, who is seeking re-election, echoed aspirations to prepare the party for a possible role in government.
“We need to make ourselves ready to govern,” said Meuthen. “It is not going to happen in 2019 or in 2020. But is going to happen.”
The party has said it wants to continue with the co-leadership model.
Tino Chrupalla, a lawmaker from the eastern state of Saxony, is the candidate favored by senior AfD members. He also has the backing of Bjoern Hoecke, AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia who leads a radical wing within the party that is under surveillance by the domestic intelligence agency for possible unconstitutional activities.
“If we want more success we need to change,” Chrupalla said on Friday during a reception. “We want to move toward the center. This will work because the CDU keeps moving to the left.”
The AfD won around a fourth of votes in elections in three eastern states this year. The party is more popular in former Communist eastern states, with double the support that it has in the west of the country.
Chrupalla’s main challenger is lawmaker Gottfried Curio, a physicist and musician, whose rhetoric against Muslims has turned him into a YouTube star with almost 52,000 followers.