ESSEN, Germany (Reuters) - The founder of the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) lost a leadership vote on Saturday to his rival, heralding a new focus on immigration for a party set up to oppose the euro.
Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old businesswoman who represents the AfD in the assembly of the state of Saxony, won 60 percent of the vote at an extraordinary party conference.
After his defeat, Bernd Lucke left open his future in the party he founded. He had wanted the AfD to focus on economic issues rather than immigration.
An acrimonious feud between the two rivals, who had said they could not work together, had hit the AfD’s ratings and left it floundering at a time when it could have capitalised on anger over Greece’s debt crisis.
“Please give me a few months’ time to lead this party back on track,” a smiling Petry said.
Petry belongs to the AfD’s national conservative wing and has flirted with the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, which drew up to 25,000 people to rallies earlier this year.
Her supporters have criticised Lucke for distancing the AfD from anti-Islam protests and expressed concern about the “erosion of Germany’s sovereignty and identity”.
Amid booing from opponents and cheering from supporters, Lucke said in a speech to the conference before the vote that the row had hurt the party.
“We publicly argued ourselves to shreds,” he said.
“This has cost and is costing our party and I deeply regret that ... Our opponents in the old parties are feasting on it.”
Turmoil in the AfD suits Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who had lost some support to the AfD. On Saturday Lucke blamed Merkel for wasting Germans’ money on Greece.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, the AfD fell just short of the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament in the federal election that year. Since then it has won seats in the European Parliament and five state assemblies.
It has risen to about 9 percent in opinion polls, but in recent weeks has slipped back to about 5 percent.
Until now the party has had three co-leaders, including both Petry and Lucke. Under the party’s rules Petry will take over as the sole chairman at the end of the year.
Writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by Andrew Roche