November 28, 2019 / 1:31 PM / 15 days ago

Dark horse candidate opens up leadership race in Germany's far-right AfD

BERLIN (Reuters) - An Alternative for Germany (AfD) lawmaker known for his strident criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policies has decided to run for the leadership of the far-right party, complicating a fight over its future.

FILE PHOTO: Gottfried Curio, member of the German Bundestag and of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), speaks at the Gillamoos Fair, one of Bavaria's oldest fairs, in Abensberg, Germany September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert/File Photo

Gottfried Curio, a physicist and musician, announced his surprise candidacy on YouTube, where his rhetoric against Muslims has turned him into a star with almost 52,000 followers.

He will run against Tino Chrupalla, a lawmaker from the eastern state of Saxony favored by senior AfD members, a party official said.

The leadership vote by AfD delegates at a congress on Saturday will decide the future direction of the party, which has upended German politics since entering the national parliament two years ago as the third largest force.

“Curio is an eloquent speaker who knows how to fire up a crowd,” an AfD lawmaker said, on condition of anonymity. “But many doubt he has the skills to hold the party together and rally support behind a program that guarantees more success.”

The AfD leadership is currently shared by Alexander Gauland, a 78-year-old patriarchal figure seen as a unifying force, and Joerg Meuthen, a European Parliament lawmaker.

“Gauland and the party board want Chrupalla. He is not our best speaker but he knows how to campaign and win elections,” said the AfD lawmaker.

Gauland has indicated he might run again for the leadership if he doubts the quality of the candidates.

“Gauland would win re-election hands down,” the lawmaker said. “But he prefers to step down given his age and health. He might have to reconsider if he feels Curio has a good chance.”

Chrupalla, a former decorator who has appeared in a report by the domestic intelligence agency about the AfD for possible links to far-right militants, is backed by Bjoern Hoecke, AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia who leads a radical wing within the AfD.

“Regardless of what happens at the party congress, it is clear the AfD is becoming more radical,” said Matthias Quent, Director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society.

Though he lacks the support of Gauland and Hoecke, Curio has wasted no effort in trying to sell his pitch.

“The AfD must help the police and justice system remedy the loss of control,” he said, referring to Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome one million asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa. “This includes the loss of the public space from parks which are becoming open markets for African drug dealers.”

Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Gareth Jones

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