German anti-immigrant AfD party picks leaders for election drive

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cologne Saturday to demonstrate against the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is holding its party conference in the city.

Some 600 AfD delegates are meeting to discuss policy for September's national elections, but could only enter the convention centre under heavy police protection as protesters tried to keep them out.

A majority of AfD delegates at a congress in the western city of Cologne backed 76-year-old publicist Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old former investment banker, as candidates fronting the party's bid to win seats in the national parliament for the first time in a September 24 election.

Co-leader Frauke Petry, left, talks to board member Alexander Gauland at the party convention of Germany's nationalist party AfD.

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) - Divisions among German nationalists erupted Saturday as delegates from the far-right Alternative for Germany party rejected an appeal by one of their leaders to seek a pragmatic political path instead of turning into a "fundamental opposition" party.

Petry also criticized more extreme members of the AfD such as Björn Höcke, a regional party leader who caused offense earlier this year with a comment about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin when he said that "Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of [their] capital".

The party has suffered declining poll numbers in 2017, which led co-leader Frauke Petry to put forth a proposal to reject "extremist voices" and move closer to the center.

Around 600 delegates rejected Petry's call to adopt a more moderate-sounding "Realpolitik" programme meant to shut down the party's more extremist voices, including those who have attacked Germany's Holocaust remembrance culture.

Gauland, 76, is one of the party's most prominent members and considered one of Petry's main rivals.

The right-wing AfD is seeking to win seats in the national parliament for the first time.

Joerg Meuthen, an economics professor who is Petry's normally soft-spoken counterpart as co-leader, drew applause on Saturday as he hit the migration theme and pushed back against Petry's bid to weigh cooperating with Germany's traditional parties.

As reported by the Reuters news agency, Petry had become the face of the anti-immigration party, which hurt Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives during the migrant crisis but has leaked support this year.

Meuthen said he was not xenophobic but was concerned about the extent to which migrants were changing Germany and that Germans did not want to become a minority in their own country.

Alexander Gauland (right) with Frauke Petry.

Petry, 41, announced Wednesday that she would no longer be her party's top candidate.

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