BERLIN (Reuters) - Right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) members voted on Monday to expel one of the party's state leaders who criticized a memorial in Berlin to victims of the Nazi Holocaust and said history should be rewritten to focus on German victims.
The AfD, which has lawmakers in 10 of Germany's 16 regional parliaments, is expected to become the third-largest party in the Bundestag federal lower house after an election on Sept. 24.
Some senior AfD members say speeches like the one by Bjoern Hoecke, the party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, damage its image and dent its chances in the election.
Two-thirds of regional AfD leaders voted during a conference call to start a legal process within the party to oust Hoecke, who said in a statement he regrets the party's decision.
"I am convinced that I have breached neither the statute nor the rules of the party," he said.
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The party's arbitration body in Thuringia will now have to decide whether to accept the motion, the party said in an emailed statement. Should that body reject the motion, the party could turn to its federal arbitration body for a final ruling.
Set up in 2013 by an economist to oppose euro zone bailouts, the AfD has since morphed into an anti-immigration party, drawing support from Germans angry about Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to welcome refugees.
Party co-leader Joerg Meuthen, seen as representing a moderate wing in the party, said the Thuringia body was likely to reject the motion as Hoecke's remarks in a speech did not provide sufficient grounds for expulsion.
Meuthen voted against the motion.
"The expulsion process faces major hurdles," he told Reuters. "The resolution is excessive".
The party said the decision was taken after a thorough examination of Hoecke's speech to young AfD supporters in January in Dresden, home to the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement.
Hoecke's remarks that the Holocaust Memorial was a "monument of shame" were cheered by supporters and criticized by politicians, including some who called him a Nazi.
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr and Hans-Edzard Busemann; Editing by Louise Ireland)