BERLIN Support for Germany's Eurosceptical AfD party has hit a record high in a new poll released on Wednesday, when a European Union political bloc that includes Britain's ruling Conservatives is due to decide whether to admit the German party as a member.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), formed just over a year ago amid German disenchantment with the euro, notched up its first election success on May 25 by taking seven seats in the European Parliament after winning 7 percent of German votes.
In a poll by Forsa for stern magazine and broadcaster RTL taken after the EU elections and measuring voter intentions for the next national election, support for the AfD, which also wants tougher rules on immigration, stood at 8 percent.
That is two percentage points more than the AfD managed in any previous Forsa poll and far above its score in last year's election for Germany's Bundestag lower house, when it narrowly failed to reach the 5 percent threshold to win seats there.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have ruled out ties with the AfD. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber accuses it of using extremist language to "fish" among far-right voters and says it is "not a normal conservative party".
Despite AfD's tough stance on immigration and dislike of the euro currency, its leader Bernd Lucke has distanced himself from the far-right and has ruled out teaming up with France's National Front or the UK Independence Party, which both did very well in last month's elections to the European Parliament.
Unlike those two parties, AfD is not demanding its host country's withdrawal from the EU but echoes British Prime Minister David Cameron in calling for a looser union of sovereign nations states that is mainly focused on free trade.
The AfD has applied to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), set up by Cameron's Conservatives after they quit the center-right European People's Party (EPP), the biggest bloc in the European Parliament which includes Merkel's CDU.
But Cameron, who is courting Merkel in his drive to reform the EU and thereby reduce the risk of a British exit from the 28-nation bloc, risks a conflict with the German leader if he welcomes her AfD rival into the ECR.
Despite Merkel's annoyance with him for taking his party out of the EPP, the two leaders see eye-to-eye on many issues including free trade and the need to cut EU bureaucracy.
Some Conservative members of the European Parliament have come out in support of an alliance with the AfD but Lucke says the ECR decision is "wide open" because of the pressure Merkel is putting on Cameron and other EU allies in the ECR.
"There is a very large degree of acceptance towards the AfD from ECR MEPs themselves, but it can be difficult to go against the instructions of your party leader," Lucke told Reuters.
"If the argument is made that Mr Cameron won't be able to work with Mrs Merkel if he does something she doesn't like, then it could go against us," said Lucke, an economist, adding the AfD would start an independent EU bloc if rejected by the ECR.
Manfred Guellner, head of Forsa, said that with just over 2 million people voting for them in the EU contest, where turnout is much lower than in national votes, the AfD had not actually increased its votes since the Bundestag election, "but they still give the impression that they made great gains".
The AfD convinced many non-voters to give it a chance and broadened its middle-class support base to include more people from "the lower strata of society", Guellner said.
A third of people polled said they liked the idea of the AfD getting into the next German parliament in 2017, but only 8 percent believed Lucke was better equipped to deal with the challenges of governing Germany than other politicians.
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin and Hans-Edzard Busemann; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Gareth Jones)