Frauke Petry: Unhappy former East German politician takes over Germany’s biggest party

By Martin Beckström

BERLIN — Frauke Petry, a nationalist, euroskeptic leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism, secured the support of more than 35 percent of the members of Germany’s lower house of parliament on Saturday to win the opening round of a contest to become chancellor.

The vote sets the stage for an end to the long dominance of the Christian Democratic Union’s Angela Merkel and a new era in Germany’s postwar politics. And while the vote was only an early test of political support for the new leader of the left-leaning party, it is certain to rekindle divisive debates in Germany and across Europe about whether anti-immigration policies serve the common interest of a diverse continent.

“We went into this saying that we are open-minded people, that the political culture of the SPD doesn’t interest us, and we’ve got a wonderful result,” Ms. Petry said after Saturday’s vote.

Supporters say Ms. Petry, a longtime party member who moved into the leadership this year, has evolved into a charismatic figure who will revive a movement that has existed largely on the margins since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ms. Petry built her reputation by appealing to blue-collar workers and voters, in particular those in the former Communist east, by railing against the legacy of German unification.

Many other politicians and commentators said the resolution of the race for the party leadership on Saturday was an endorsement of Ms. Merkel and her work to unify the country and improve the economic situation of workers, reversing decades of decline and moving Germany closer to the European Union’s economic mainstream.

The vote may have a significant impact on Ms. Merkel, who can still count on a majority of support in her party. But it may also accelerate her decision to exit politics, say the leaders of two think tanks who are closely following Germany’s political transformation.

Ms. Petry, 46, once belonged to the infamous Germany “Stasi” police force but renounced communism, and in recent years established herself as a powerful party figure by waging a fierce but successful battle against Germany’s postwar reconciliation. Her critics, however, say her political vision is a hardline one that would punish the suffering in Germany’s east and risk the very progress made in recent years.

“The DP’s meeting won’t change anything. The DP can’t force out the Merkel government or unseat Angela Merkel — she’s a bloody strong politician,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Germany has elected a left-leaning party chancellor three times since World War II, twice in a four-way race, a process that was blamed for further complicating the reunification of the country in 1990 and four years later, when Gerhard Schroeder, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, suffered a crushing defeat against Ms. Merkel.

Much of Germany’s progressive political movement has coalesced around Ms. Merkel, but some leading politicians and voters in Germany’s east expressed concern over Ms. Petry’s policies in the past.

I vote for Elmar Brok as Parliament president. Here’s why: — Lilian Cilley (@LilianCilley) June 19, 2018

The ratification of Ms. Petry as the party’s leader requires a second vote by the 590-member parliament, which Ms. Petry is expected to win. That vote, in what is known as a “confidence vote,” takes place within the next week. Even if a negative result comes from the vote, Ms. Petry could be weakened by having lost the first round of a contested leadership contest.

But Ms. Petry, who has led the party since September, has shown no signs of taking back her candidacy. A public resignation would risk “gaining an image of weakness,” she told party members on Friday. “If you become a leader you don’t lose your principles.”

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