AfD leader Frauke Petry has 'done a Nigel Farage' by quitting in wake of German election triumph

The Alternative for Germany takes the lead in regional exit polls, but who is their leader Frauke Petry

Frauke Petry studied in England before becoming an entrepreneur in her homeland

Monday, September 25, 2017

It was a move of which Nigel Farage, her friend and collaborator, would have been proud.

Frauke Petry has stolen today's headlines away from her erstwhile Alternative for Germany (AfD) party at the moment of its greatest triumph. Hours after AfD came third in the German elections, Petry, who had won her own seat, announced she was stepping down and becoming an independent.

Speaking to a stunned throng of reporters, Petry said "I will not take up the AfD whip in parliament" and also accused members of the party of condoning racism and claiming that, whilst a protest party can be "successful in opposition" it can't "offer a credible alternative government."

The news certainly caught AfD off-guard. Her former joint leader, Jorg Meuthen, said the matter wasn't discussed beforehand and some suggest she may be trying to lead a breakaway faction. As gestures go, it's not dissimilar to Farage's decision to quit the Ukip leadership in the wake of the Brexit referendum last year.

For many people, Petry is the AfD - just like Marine Le Pen is Front Nationale and Farage was (in fact, still is) Ukip. The three leaders are said to be very close: indeed Farage recently, and to much criticism, chose to speak at an AfD rally and talked up the party's chance ahead of the elections.

Yet, for a long time, it has appeared that Petry has been far more extremet than both of them. In fact, when she was elected AfD leader in 2015, it was seen as a shift to the right and several influential people within the party resigned in protest.

In the early months of her leadership, it seemed she was indeed the nightmarish xenophobic caracature of left-wing lore. In January 2016, for example, she called for police to use "firearms if necessary", on illegal immigrants, and also revived Hitler's hellishly facile policy of sending refugees to a remote island - a precursor to the final solution. She has defended the actions of Pegida, the belligerent islamophobic street movement which shot to prominence in 2015, and described President Donald Trump as “refreshing” while calling Mesut Ozil a traitor for posting a picture of himself in front of a mosque.

Yet these policies have always been strangely at odds with her public persona. Petry, who is in her early 40s, is a qualified chemist. She has several degrees and studied in the UK before beginning her career. Prior to embarking on the political trail she became an entrepreneur, manufacturing environmentally friendly polyurethanes. She's always quick to show her teeth - but in a way that has prompted commentators to call her the 'smiling face' of the far-right. 

Now, it seems, AfD has actually moved too far to the right for its former female figurehead.

In May last year, her party agreed to a new manifesto including a ban on minarets, veils for women and the Muslim call to prayer. Petry, however, has maintained she wanted to “seek a dialogue with Islam”.

Then, when AfD's members sat down to pick candidates for this weekend's election back in April, Petry gave a further signal that she wanted the party to shift towards the centre, telling fellow delegates that she wanted to adopt a "realpolitik" strategy. But the idea was overwhelmingly rejected at the AfD conference, with Petry's co-leader Jörg Meuthen, and the party’s leading election candidates, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, leading the opposition.

Perhaps that was the day when Petry began to drift away - and plot a high-profile walk-out as a form of revenge against Meuthen and the rest.

Whatever the reason for Petry's defection, perhaps we'll finally get to see the real Frauke Petry now. Debate has long raged as to her true identity: is she simply a firmly entrenched centre-rightist, or something more something more sinister? Is she Nigella Farage, or (as some in Germany have christened her) Adolfina?

For better or worse, it seems we - and Petry - are approaching a moment of truth.