BERLIN The political establishment has dismissed Germany's new anti-euro party as a fear-mongering populist aberration that could implode even before a looming federal election.
But the first congress of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) showed that the movement, launched only a few months ago by a group of renegade academics, journalists and businessmen, is striking a chord with voters and may prove an influential force come September.
Over 1,500 AfD supporters from across Germany packed into the Intercontinental Hotel in central Berlin on Sunday to elect the party leadership and formally approve a policy programme that has one objective above all: an end to the euro and return of the deutsche mark.
The meeting was not without the sort of hitches one would expect from a new party that is virtually devoid of experienced, professional politicians.
A speech by party founder Bernd Lucke was interrupted at one point by a man waving a German flag. And delegates interjected repeatedly to remind AfD leaders gathered on the stage about proper protocol as motions were voted on.
Still, the mood in the vast conference room where the congress was held bordered on the euphoric at times. And the attendees - mainly older men in suits with a sprinkling of middle-aged women - said they were amazed at how much interest the party was generating among friends and family members.
"There is huge potential," said Alexander Gauland, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) for 50 years before he defected and signed up with the AfD a month ago.
"What has become clear over the past weeks is that there are many people who feel they are not being heard by the big parties, especially when it comes to euro zone bailouts."
TABOO FOR DECADES
Unlike some other anti-euro movements in Europe, like the Dutch Freedom party of Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, the AfD says it is neither nationalist nor anti-immigration. Its programme calls for Canadian-style policies to entice more skilled foreign workers to Germany.
The party supports an "orderly" dismantling of the euro zone because it believes this to be in Germany's best interests, but also because it says this would help southern members of the currency bloc that are struggling with crushing recessions and rising unemployment.
Above all, attendees in Berlin expressed frustration with the lack of debate in Germany's big parties over policies that have led to multi-billion euro bailouts for Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus since the bloc's debt crisis first erupted over three years ago.
The rescues were backed not only by members of Merkel's centre-right coalition, but also by the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.
"This party offers Germany a chance. It is talking about themes that were taboo for decades. Until AfD came along there was no alternative, and that is undemocratic," said Henry Strasen, a 47-year-old who runs a gas station in the town of Luebben south of Berlin and previously supported the Free Democrats (FDP), junior partners in Merkel's coalition.
Thomas Rang, a 62-year old real estate developer and also an FDP supporter before quitting the party in 2011, said he sympathised with southern member states that were "trapped by the euro".
"They can't devalue. They are growing resentful of Germany. I'm for Europe but not for this kind of Europe," said Rang, who travelled from Duesseldorf for the congress.
Since its founding in early March, over 7,500 people have joined the new party. Spokeswoman Dagmar Metzger says three times as many members have come from centre-right parties in Merkel's ruling coalition than from the centre-left camp of the SPD and Greens.
Opinion polls show one in four Germans would consider supporting the AfD. Despite that, most pollsters say it will be difficult for the party to get above the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament in September, although few are ruling out the possibility.
"The question is whether on election day people who sympathise with this party actually vote for it," said Frank Decker, a political scientist at Bonn University.
That will depend on a number of factors.
The AfD will need to collect 2,000 signatures in each of Germany's 16 federal states over the coming months to stand in the election at all.
In a country where overt nationalism in politics is frowned upon because of the crimes of the Nazi era, the new party must also take care to keep out fringe elements that could embarrass it and cloud its message. In front of the hotel on Sunday, some people were handing out copies of "Junge Freiheit", or "Young Freedom", a weekly that is popular with the far-right.
Some believe AfD must become more than a one-issue party to have a chance in September. The programme approved on Sunday included recommendations on education, energy and integration policy, as well as long passages on Europe.
The Pirates, an upstart party that became a magnet for protest voters in regional elections across Germany last year, also provides a cautionary tale for the AfD. It has seen its support crumble over the past months amid infighting and organisational disarray.
"We shouldn't overdramatize this party but we shouldn't underestimate them either," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior lawmaker in Merkel's CDU who has found himself ostracised within the party for refusing to back euro zone bailouts but rules out defecting to the AfD.
"I don't believe they will get over 5 percent. It is very hard to organise nationwide in just five months. But the voters that switch to this party can really hurt the CDU."
The irony is that if the AfD does do well in the election, stealing a disproportionate number of votes away from Merkel's centre-right bloc, it probably increases the likelihood that she will be forced into a "grand coalition" with the SPD.
Such a government would be expected to be even more supportive of European rescues and closer economic integration than the current administration - a result that several AfD members said they preferred not to think about.
"If the euro fails, Europe will not fail," party leader Lucke, a Hamburg-based economist, told the cheering crowd in Berlin, playing on one of Merkel's favourite phrases. "If the euro fails, Angela Merkel will fail."
(Reporting by Noah Barkin; Editing by Jason Webb)
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