BREMEN, Germany (Reuters) - The congress of a eurosceptic German party that is stealing votes from Angela Merkel’s conservatives got off to a turbulent start on Friday, with delegates in the Alternative for Germany (AfD) squabbling over the agenda and debate rules.
With a post-war record 2,200 delegates, the AfD party congress is more than twice as large as Merkel’s CDU party meetings, but with size and the novelty of having been formed just two years ago comes the almost inevitable in-fighting.
AfD founder Bernd Lucke, who wants Greece to leave the euro zone, said open debate should make the AfD stronger and united by Sunday’s close of the meeting, including a decision on whether to change the rules to pick just one leader by December.
“We have different opinions on the party’s direction but we found a compromise and closed ranks,” Lucke said, referring to a deal to cut the three-person AfD leadership to two and then to one. The Bremen congress must approve that proposal.
The power struggle is being closely followed by Merkel’s conservatives, who are worried about the sudden rise of a group that siphons off some of its support.
Merkel hopes the AfD, with its 23,000 grassroots members, will self-destruct but further turmoil in the euro zone after the Greek election brought anti-austerity Syriza to power and German angst about European Central Bank moves could help it.
The AfD entered the European Parliament last May with 7.1 percent, then shocked Germany by winning about 10 percent in three regional elections in the east.
Lucke, an economics professor, quit Merkel’s Christian Democrats after 33 years to found the AfD with other frustrated arch conservatives in 2013.
“We all have the same goal of establishing a new party in Germany that’s a credible alternative to the old parties,” he told delegates.
Lucke has fought a spectacular public battle to demote his two co-leaders, who are popular with the AfD’s far-right wing. They called Lucke a “control freak” with a “despot-like style of leadership” while his allies viscerally attacked his naysayers.
AfD delegates spent the first two hours arguing over how long delegates should be allowed to speak from the floor before agreeing on a one-minute time limit. Opponents of the motion shouted insults at the party leaders.
One delegate sarcastically suggested a five-millisecond limit before the moderator told him to first go home “and practice that on your own for a while”. Another dissident called for the party leadership to be dissolved but was voted down.
Additional reporting by Petra Wischgoll; Editing by Alison Williams