BERLIN (Reuters) – Leaders of Alternative for Germany (AfD) put on a brave face after projected election results showed support for the far-right party dropping and said they rejoiced in seeing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives slump to their worst-ever result.
The mood was subdued at a restaurant in Berlin where party leaders and a few dozen members had gathered after the party failed to improve on the 12.6% it secured four years ago, settling instead on 10-11%.
“Should this result stand this would mean that Merkel has ruined my former party,” said AfD honorary leader Alexander Gauland, who was a member of the outgoing chancellor’s Christian Democrats (CDU) before joining the far-right party.
“Despite our relatively weaker result we have accomplished our mission: Merkel is out,” added Gauland, drawing applause.
The AfD has been weakened by an internal power struggle between co-leader Joerg Meuthen who wants to purge the party of members with suspected links to neo-Nazi groups and a more nationalist camp that sees no need for action.
Its opposition to lockdowns and distancing rules during the pandemic have also put off voters, pollsters said before the election.
Exit polls showed the Social Democrats just edging out or virtually tied with the conservatives.
The AfD stormed into the national parliament for the first time in 2017 buoyed by voters angry with Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome almost one million asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.
It is shunned by all mainstream political parties, which accuse it of fostering divisions through verbal attacks on Muslims and migrants. The AfD has denied harbouring racist views.
With the election too close to call, conservative candidate Armin Laschet and his SPD rival Olaf Scholz will have to wait for final results before declaring victory.
Gauland tried to see a silver lining in the result, saying weakened conservatives might be tempted to reverse their decision never to work with the AfD, even in opposition.
“If Scholz becomes chancellor then the CDU has to change course and then there is a chance that we could work with the CDU,” he said.
(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)