Germany's far-right AfD holds congress despite virus curbs

Isabelle LE PAGE

Hundreds of delegates from Germany's far-right AfD gathered Saturday for a congress that authorities warned could become a coronavirus hotspot, as the party increasingly aligns itself with militants protesting against virus restrictions.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) co-leader Tino Chrupalla opened the event by attacking the "state of emergency" policy introduced by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to tackle the health crisis.

"Lives have been broken, there's a wave of bankruptcies... lots of people have lost their jobs," he told the congress, in a vast hall of a disused nuclear plant in the western city of Kalkar.

To get approval for the gathering, the AfD had to agree to stringent rules including compulsory masks and social distancing.

Although most people obey the rules, the rally still betrayed some of the divisions inside the party between ultra-conservatives and less radical members.

Party co-chief Alexander Gauland recently accused the government of using "war propaganda" to champion its "corona-dictatorship".

In a barely veiled barb directed at Gauland, co-chair Joerg Meuthen told the rally: "It is not intelligent to speak of dictatorship. We do not live in a dictatorship or else we would not be able to hold this congress."

A warning to those present that the party could suffer from extreme anti-government rhetoric during the pandemic earned Meuthen applause and boos.

Outside the venue -- now a hotel and leisure complex -- about 500 people demonstrated against the staging of the conference following a call by the "Stand up to Racism" coalition.

Kalkar's mayor Britta Schulz had said it was "irresponsible" to hold such a big event and warned it could "become a hotspot" for the virus, but acknowledged that the gathering could not be banned.

In contrast, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union has twice postponed its congress to elect a new leader because of the risks of contagion.

The Green party last weekend held its meeting online.

However, AfD health spokesman Detlev Spangenberg compared the fatality rate from coronavirus with influenza, arguing that the response had been disproportionate.

Germany has recorded more than one million coronavirus infections and close to 16,000 people have died, according to official data.

- Dwindling appeal -

The AfD has been the focus of repeated controversies since it began life as a eurosceptic outfit seven years ago.

In 2015, as public opinion soured against Merkel's decision to keep Germany's borders open to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, the AfD morphed into an anti-immigration party.

It was rewarded for its Islamophobic positioning at elections in 2017, when voters sent it into the Bundestag for the first time to become the biggest opposition group in parliament.

A year ahead of national elections, the party is once again positioning itself on the side of militants railing against the government -- this time over curbs imposed to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the latest round of protests in Berlin, an AfD politician was charged for using a forged medical certificate to claim he could not wear the required nose and mouth covering.

In a separate incident recently, Gauland was forced to apologise after two AfD lawmakers invited two far-right YouTubers to parliament who went on to harass politicians in the building.

Nevertheless, the AfD's ratings have held at around 10 percent, compared with 16 percent at the height of the migrant crisis.

Some voters are turned off by association with neo-Nazi skinheads -- the AfD's most radical faction "Fluegel" is now the object of official surveillance by Germany's intelligence agency.

Merkel has meanwhile seen her approval ratings soar with most Germans voicing satisfaction at her handling of the pandemic.

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