German anti-immigrant candidate walks out of TV debate

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BERLIN (Reuters) - One of the top candidates for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in this month’s election walked out of a live television debate on Tuesday night after being accused of failing to distance herself from right-wingers.

The right-wing AfD has gained support by slamming Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to refugees and is set to enter the national parliament for the first time after the Sept. 24 election. Polls put it on 7-11 percent.

Alice Weidel, 38, collected her papers and rushed out of public broadcaster ZDF’s studio during a debate with Germany’s six other major parties after Andreas Scheuer, a member of Merkel’s conservative bloc, said she should distance herself from far-right figures in the AfD.

Scheuer said Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s other top candidate, was a “radical right-winger”. Gauland has described Bjoern Hoecke, who in January called for a “180 degree turnaround” in the way Germany seeks to atone for Nazi crimes, as part of “the soul of the AfD”.

Weidel, who styles herself as an economic expert and critic of the euro, has gradually shifted to the right since being chosen as one of the party’s chancellor candidates in April. She has called for Hoecke to be expelled from the party.

In a statement published shortly after her exit, Weidel accused ZDF moderator Marietta Slomka of being biased and unprofessional: “Ms Slomka shouldn’t act out her personal animosities in the television show,” she wrote.

The AfD wants to abolish the license fees that finance Germany’s public broadcasters. Weidel’s statement ended with the comment that Slomka’s behavior was “another reason to refuse to pay the license fee”.

It did not mention the dispute with Scheuer or a preceding fiery discussion on immigration.

Some media speculated that Weidel’s exit was set up, with Stern magazine’s editor in chief Andreas Petzold writing on Twitter: “Alice Weidel’s dramatically staged exit was certainly not spontaneous. This is how the AfD cultivates its role as a victim.”

Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan