Frauke Petry, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), said on Wednesday she would not lead the anti-immigration party's campaign for a Sept. 24 federal election - a shock announcement from the woman seen as the face of the party.
AfD's poll ratings soared with the influx of migrants to Germany in late 2015 and early 2016. Opinion polls show the AfD winning enough votes to enter the Bundestag lower house of parliament for the first time. However, they have sagged in recent months as the issue faded from headlines and the party became increasingly mired in infighting between Petry, her husband, Marcus Pretzell, and other senior figures. The AfD has lost about a third of its supporters as migrant arrivals to Germany have eased and the party has also been hit by infighting and controversy over its attitude to the Nazi past.
Petry became co-leader of in 2015 as she ousted fellow founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, shifting the party's focus from economic issues to immigration and Islam.
Petry caused controversy by tabling a motion for a party congress next weekend in which she said the AfD - which is shunned by other parties - should be ready to join coalitions in future. She also said some senior AfD members such as Alexander Gauland wanted it to be a "fundamental" opposition party.
She also irked some rivals by leading a push for the expulsion of Bjoern Hoecke, AfD's regional leader in eastern Thuringia state, after he suggested that Germany end its tradition of acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past. Hoecke called Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a "monument of shame" and said that history books should be re-written to focus more on German victims of the Nazis.
Speaking in a video message posted on her Facebook page, Petry said she had been accused of making the proposal solely to become the party's top candidate despite her not mentioning that idea in her motion.
"In order to put an end to all speculation in this regard, I am using the opportunity of this video message to clearly state that I am neither available for a lone lead candidacy nor for participation in a top team," she said.
"Critics of the motion accuse me of splitting AfD into two different camps," Petry added. She conceded that its wording had "scared members," but said she hadn't meant to do so and was prepared to reword it.
"Too many of us don't recognize, to this day, that we need a common strategy," Petry complained. "AfD's image has repeatedly been marked by the uncoordinated ... maximum provocations of a few representatives."
Petry did not, however, suggest any plans to step down as party chairwoman.
German political parties choose lead candidates for elections who generally dominate their campaigns and, in the case of bigger parties, compete to become chancellor.
The AfD, which rails against Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow more than a million migrants into Germany since mid-2015, is due to decide on its election leadership line-up at its weekend gathering in the western city of Cologne.
Petry, a 41-year-old chemist from the former Communist East Germany, managed to secure a two-thirds majority on the party executive board in favor of expelling Hoecke. The far-right wing of the AfD supports him, however, and a party arbitration board must now decide his fate.
A Forsa opinion poll published on Wednesday showed the AfD winning eight percent in the election, well above the five percent threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag. Merkel's conservatives are seen emerging as the largest party.
Germany's Der Spiegel magazine has reported that Petry's opponents agreed at a secret meeting last week to form a team around 76-year-old publicist Gauland and 38-year-old economist Alice Weidel - who, like Petry, wants Hoecke ousted. The AfD could not be reached for comment on the report.
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