Germany’s far-right AfD holds congress in Essen amid mass protests

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Germany's far-right AfD holds congress in Essen amid mass protests

Members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gathered in the western city of Essen for a two-day party congress, as huge crowds of protesters clashed with a massive contingent of police outside the venue, reported dpa.

The AfD is coming off a second-place finish in the European Parliament elections earlier this month, and is gearing up for state parliamentary elections in three eastern German states where the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic party appears to have an edge in the polls.

"We are number one in the east," AfD co-chairman Tino Chrupalla declared to delegates on Saturday. "We want to win these elections, and we want to expand and maintain this position."

AfD co-chairwoman Alice Weidel attacked Germany's centre-left coalition government, the country's domestic security services and recent reforms to Germany's citizenship law in a speech to nearly 600 delegates in the city's Grugahalle indoor arena.

She claimed the country has "degenerated into a pony farm" and warned that "Germany will do away with itself if we don't get our act together and finally put an end to this woke hippie madness."

Weidel received loud applause from AfD members when she said that it was in Germany and Europe's interests "that Ukraine does not belong to the European Union and to Europe."

Weidel also lobbed criticism at Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has said there are "irreconcilable differences" between her far-right Brothers of Italy party and the AfD, as well as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Germany's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

Outside, thousands of police clashed with mass crowds of protesters that were estimated to number as many as 100,000 and who tried to blockade the venue and prevent AfD delegates from reaching the gathering.

"Some demonstrators wore masks and attacked police officers," Essen police said on Saturday. Authorities appealed to demonstrators to "keep away from violent actions and troublemakers."

Several hundred protesters blocked a motorway exit ramp and others occupied streets and intersections near the event hall where the congress is being held.

Police have deployed thousands of officers as well as water canons to control the demonstrations.

Police clashed with a large group of protesters who attempted to break through a police cordon at around 5:45 am, a police spokeswoman said.

Officers used pepper spray and batons to stop their advance, she said. Police requested several ambulances, but it was not immediately clear whether any demonstrators were injured in the clash.

Several AfD politicians from Germany's parliament said that they had been picked up at their hotel by the police and taken to the venue. Some delegates managed to reach the venue on foot undisturbed by protesters.

Weidel and Chrupalla are seeking re-election as the joint leaders of the party ahead of German national elections in the autumn of next year.

The authorities have raised concerns that, while most of the expected demonstrations would be peaceful, around 1,000 left-wing extremists would use violent means to disrupt the congress.

Leftist groups said in advance they would try to blockade entrances to the venue with the aim of preventing AfD delegates from getting through.

An initial demonstration was held on Friday night, with much larger protests expected throughout the day on Saturday, including a march setting out from the city's central train station.

Essen's mayor, Thomas Kufen of the centre-right CDU, is set to address participants in the protest march, which is expected to attract more than 20,000 people.

The city of Essen had tried for months to prevent the AfD from holding the two-day party conference there, but ultimately failed in court.

A major theme for the AfD's congress will likely be the party's second-place finish in the European Parliament elections earlier this month, in which the party gained seats but did less well than pre-election polling had suggested.

The final stages of the campaign were overshadowed by how the party dealt with lead candidate Maximilian Krah, who has been caught up in foreign influence-buying allegations and also by controversial comments he made to an Italian newspaper defending members of the Nazi SS paramilitary.

The AfD was expelled from the Identity and Democracy Group in the European Parliament in response to Krah's remarks, in which he said not all members of the wartime German SS were criminals.

The AfD's number two candidate for the European elections, Petr Bystron, has also faced allegations of accepting money from a pro-Russian propaganda outfit with alleged ties to the Kremlin. He has denied the accusations.

Chrupalla on Saturday acknowledged those stumbles, telling delegates that "we need to take a closer look at our candidates in future."

The AfD claimed 15.9% of the vote in the elections, but Chrupalla contended on Saturday that the party "could have won 20%."


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