The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is poised to lurch further towards the neo-Nazi fringe, it is feared, after one of its less extreme figures quit the leadership ranks.
Joerg Meuthen was regarded as a relative moderate in the party after opposing a German exit from the EU and distancing himself from a radical faction that was monitored by intelligence services.
After the AfD suffered losses at last month’s election, falling from third to fifth, Mr Meuthen announced on Monday that he would not seek re-election as a party co-leader.
The party’s critics see his departure as an opportunity for Bjoern Hoecke, the poster boy of the AfD’s radical wing, to cement his dominance.
Mr Hoecke, a former teacher, has often been criticised for trivialising the Holocaust and toying with Nazi terminology.
“The fact that the right-wing populist Meuthen is stepping back means that the right-wing radical Hoecke will become even stronger,” said Florian Hahn, a senior member of Germany’s centre-right bloc.
He compared the AfD to the National Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi outfit which rejects the legitimacy of the modern German state. “The AfD is becoming ever more of a new NPD,” he said.
Volker Wissing, the general secretary of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), said Mr Meuthen’s exit showed how far to the right the AfD stood.
“Even the right-wing Mr Meuthen was never right-wing enough for the AfD,” he said. “There is no civic camp in the AfD.”
The AfD was founded in 2013 and initially focused on opposing Germany’s expensive eurozone bailouts. Mr Meuthen became a co-leader in 2015.
That year’s refugee crisis helped bring anti-immigrant and anti-Islam tendencies to the fore in the AfD, which first entered parliament in 2017.
It made a series of spectacular gains in state elections, especially in the former East Germany, but has recently lost momentum amid divisions in the party.
Mr Meuthen was in tune with the party line on many issues, including its scepticism of coronavirus measures and climate change.
But he found himself out of step after losing a party struggle which ended with the AfD calling for “Dexit”, a German exit from the EU. Two hardliners led the party into September's election.
Mr Meuthen clashed with Mr Hoecke and his radical faction, The Wing, which was placed under surveillance and described by intelligence services as having extreme-right views.
Having once defended The Wing, describing it as an integral part of AfD, Mr Meuthen later called for a “clear firewall” on the party’s right.
“There are some individuals who don’t play by the rules, who do not stick to the basis of the party programme,” he said in July.
Mr Meuthen, a former economics professor, said on Monday that he had experienced “many hardships and disappointments”, as well as successes, during his time as a co-leader.
He called on party members to “elect sensible leaders who will take our party forward, as a strong, determined rule-of-law party”.
Julie Kurz, an analyst for German broadcaster ARD, said Mr Meuthen should take part of the blame for the rise of the extreme-right faction.
“The more extreme positions always win in the AfD,” she said. “It was naive of Meuthen to think he could do it differently.
“Party leaders come and go in the AfD, but the spiral of right-wing extremism keeps on turning.”