German protesters swamp far-right AfD as party struggles for direction

Members of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party rejected an attempt by its most prominent leader to moderate some of its positions ahead of elections later this year.

A general view of the protests outside the Alternative for Germany party conference in Cologne, Germany on Saturday. Germany's far-right AfD party couldn't agree on a new leader after their most prominent spokeswoman stepped down amid infighting. Photo by Joerg Schueler/EPA
A general view of the protests outside the Alternative for Germany party conference in Cologne, Germany on Saturday. Germany’s far-right AfD party couldn’t agree on a new leader after their most prominent spokeswoman stepped down amid infighting. Photo by Joerg Schueler/EPA

The AfD political convention in Cologne was also marked by mass protests, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people demonstrating outside the hotel where the convention took place. There were scattered reports of arrests and skirmishes between protesters and police, but no serious injuries.

Inside the convention hall, the AfD’s co-leader and most prominent public spokeswoman, Frauke Petry, urged members to consider dropping some of the party’s most controversial positions on immigration, LGBT rights and the European Union and instead seek governing partnerships with mainline political parties.

None of Germany’s largest political parties have said they will enter into a governing coalition with the AfD, a newcomer in German national politics.

The AfD was formed in 2013 and rose to prominence after Merkel opened the nation’s doors to tens of thousands of Middle Eastern and African refugees flooding the European continent.

Earlier this week, Petry announced she would not serve as the party’s lead candidate in the election and delegates refused to even schedule a debate on her more moderate approach. The decision will likely relegate the AfD to opposition status, though they stand to gain their first seats in Germany’s election. The party must now settle on a candidate to stand against Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s powerful center-right leader.

The AfD had registered as high as 15 percent in national polls previously, but amid the infighting between hard liners and Petry’s more pragmatic wing, support has sunk to between 7 percent and 11 percent in more recent polls.

The protests outside took varying turns with a carnival atmosphere occasionally broken by conflicts with police. Hundreds of protesters attempted to barricade the entrance with chain-linked bicycles. Two officers and an AfD member were slightly injured in a scuffle with protesters as they entered the hotel.

In general, though, protesters peacefully carried signs promoting Cologne as “bunt,” which translates to “colorful,” the city’s unofficial moniker. Many sang and blew bubbles as they walked through the surrounding streets.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Recker joined the protest. She was stabbed while campaigning in 2015 over her pro-refugee stance. On Saturday, she promised the city would continue to stand for human rights and a united European Union.

Others in the large crowd agreed.

“The slide to the far right happens step by step; we have to take a stand before it begins,” Jan Sperling, a spokesman for the organizers, told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.

By Eric DuVall