German far-right party reelects its leaders after election gains while opponents protest

BERLIN (AP) — The far-right Alternative for Germany reelected its leadership duo Saturday after the party made gains in the recent European election, while thousands of people protested against its convention and some demonstrators tried to block roads or clashed with police.

Alternative for Germany, or AfD, took 15.9% of the vote to finish second in the European Parliament election on June 9, despite recent scandals and setbacks. That was lower than its support in surveys at the beginning of the year, but a particularly strong performance in the formerly communist east has bolstered its hopes of emerging as the strongest party in three state elections there in September.

At the regular two-day convention in the western city of Essen, co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla were elected unopposed to new two-year terms. They were backed by 79.8% and 82.7% of delegates respectively — a display of harmony by the party's often-argumentative standards.

Weidel vowed to work to “tear down the unspeakable so-called firewalls” that other parties have set up against working with AfD.

A heavy police presence was in place in Essen, where local authorities had tried to find a way to prevent the AfD event but lost their case in court. Organizers said a march through the city attracted some 50,000 people, while police didn't immediately give an estimate, German news agency dpa reported. Thousands attended other protest events.

Protesters staged sit-ins on streets and crossings near the convention hall.

Early Saturday morning, a group of demonstrators tried to get through a barrier and was pushed back by police using pepper spray and batons. There were also incidents in which masked demonstrators attacked officers, according to police, who reported “several” arrests.

Two officers were kicked in the head while a politician was being escorted through a group of protesters and were taken to a hospital, police said later Saturday, while another seven were slightly injured.

Weidel told delegates as she opened the meeting that “what is going on out there has nothing to do with democracy" and said that “we are here and we will stay.”

AfD's recent setbacks included the party sidelining its top two candidates from the election campaign due to scandals and being kicked out of its hard-right group in the European Parliament.

Chrupalla said that “we could have taken 20%” in the European vote and complained that reporting on the two candidates was “unfair and disproportionate.” But he also acknowledged that “with careless and unprofessional behavior, some have unnecessarily offered room for attack."

“That way, we take two steps forward and one step back, but in the future we must take three steps forward,” he added, arguing that the party needs to take a closer look at its candidates.