BERLIN (Reuters) - A power struggle over the direction of the upstart Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) burst into the open on Saturday when a group of deputy leaders attacked its founder Bernd Lucke and his plans to take sole control of the party.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, concerned about the rise of a party that attracts far-right voters and siphons off some of its support, hope the movement will self-destruct.
In a letter seen by Reuters, five senior party figures told Lucke they were alarmed by his plans, denounced his "despot-like style of leadership" and summoned him to a meeting.
It was the latest sign of strife in a party that has shaken up German politics, winning seats in the European Parliament and three German state assemblies, and has been hovering around 7 percent in most national opinion polls.
The AfD, which first gained popularity with its opposition to bailouts for indebted euro zone countries, has also adopted an anti-immigrant stance. But party leaders are divided about those two directions.
Lucke, who founded the party in 2013, is keen to avoid a drift to the right, while co-chairs Frauke Petry and Konrad Adam want to see the AfD open up more to voters from the far right.
"We're writing to you because we're worried about party unity," Petry, Adam and others told Lucke. "It is no longer only 'your' party as you keep calling it, but a party of thousands. We want you to be ... one of three equal leaders."
Ahead of a party congress set for Jan. 31, Lucke had called upon regional AfD leaders to discuss changing the party's charter to allow him to lead on his own. Petry and the deputies denounced that as a unilateral and menacing move.
Lucke had no comment on the letter, his spokesman Christian Lueth told Reuters, because he is on holiday. "Even if I had seen it, I would still not comment on its contents because it is an internal party matter," Lucke said in a statement via Lueth.
But another deputy AfD leader, Hans-Olaf Henkel, backed Lucke's plans to take control of the party, telling the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel am Sonntag that the AfD's public image was muddled because there were too many leaders.
"The cacophony we've had in recent weeks is proof that Lucke is right," said Henkel, a former industry leader. "No orchestra has three conductors, no soccer team has three head coaches."
Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Raissa Kasolowsky