Anti-euro party a wildcard in German elections

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By FRANK JORDANS, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — The leader of a new anti-euro party called Sunday for Germany to leave the common currency, telling an inaugural convention that the euro forces German taxpayers to rescue bankrupt southern European countries whose people denounce them as Nazis for their efforts.

A crowd of about 1,500 mostly older men cheered as the leader of the Alternative for Germany party, economics professor Bernd Lucke, said the euro had done little to bring Europeans together, tapping into public anger at southern European protesters who have compared Chancellor Angela Merkel to Adolf Hitler over the demands for reforms and austerity in return for bailout funds.

"Because of the euro, people in southern Europe don't hesitate to express their disgust toward Germany, using old Nazi comparisons," Lucke said. "This is not what I imagine Europe to be like."

The convention adopted a platform calling for changes in the European treaty to allow each of the 17 European Union countries that use the euro to "decide democratically which currency it wants to use."

Such sentiments are still the exception in Germany, where a sense of obligation to help fellow Europeans in distress is rooted in shame for the crimes of the Third Reich. But the new political party hopes to capitalize on simmering fears that the euro crisis could deepen and drag down Europe's biggest economy. It aims to garner enough votes in the federal elections to reach the 5 percent minimum needed for seats in Parliament.

"The euro was a failure, and it would be bad if we continue to believe in this fairy tale," Lucke said. "If the euro fails, Europe doesn't fail."

The stance puts the party in sharp opposition to Merkel's position that there can be no Europe without the preservation of the single currency, with her repeated insistence that "if the euro fails, Europe will fail." While still a fledgling movement, the new party could hurt Merkel by sapping support from her main coalition partner — which she has relied on for a stable government.

Alternative for Germany wants to introduce Swiss-style national referendums so voters can have a say on important matters, including economic rescue packages. The party congress, at Berlin's upscale Intercontinental Hotel, plans to adopt a program and vote for a party board on Sunday.

Many of the attendees expressed anger about what they said have been unfair money transfers from German taxpayers to help bail out countries such as Cyprus and Greece.

"This party has good ideas," said Andreas Fluegge, 49, a software specialist from Limburgerhof in the country's southwest. "The euro is a big problem for us. Since we have had the euro I'm making less money and paying more taxes for things I don't understand. I hope these politicians will change this."

For all the talk about what it doesn't like, however, the party has been short on what it does like, and its leaders were slammed in an editorial this week in the top-selling Bild newspaper as "political amateurs."

The conservative tabloid has never shied away from accusing southern Europeans of being lazy, nor has it stopped deploring the cost Germany shoulders to bail out other nations, but turning against the euro itself remains unthinkable.

"They can craftily explain what is wrong with rescuing the euro, but they have no concept on how the future of Europe should look," Bild wrote.

Experts believe the party has little chance of garnering enough of the protest vote to reach the 5 percent threshold. But it could draw enough voters away from Merkel's center-right coalition to force her into an alliance with the opposition or give the opposition an outright majority.

"There is space for an anti-euro party in Germany," said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "So far this position hasn't really been represented in the German party system."

Underlining the potential appeal, a recent poll showed that even though 69 percent of Germans now back the euro — up from about 50 percent last year — a significant minority of 27 percent said they'd like to see a return to the mark. The survey of 1,003 people was conducted April 2-3 for the business daily Handelsblatt. The poll had an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Abandoning the euro currency would have significant costs, especially for Germany as a heavily export-oriented economy. According to analysts' estimates, it could easily knock down the country's annual output by a double digit percentage figure.

"I think the Germans know, and to some extent accept, that they have to pay the bill for saving the euro," said Ursula Weidenfeld, an economist and author. "They just want to make sure that they aren't paying more than necessary."

Other nations such as the Netherlands, Austria and Finland have also insisted on the same austerity measures that Germany has demanded in exchange for European bailouts, but as the bloc's largest economy and the largest single contributor to the funds, most of the anger has been directed at Germany and Merkel.

Some of Merkel's voters are now beginning to wonder whether their country — and their savings — should be tied to the struggling euro project, and Weidenfeld said support for the euro "could quickly change if a new rescue package has to be negotiated."

Should the eurozone's woes spread to fully engulf Italy or Spain — the bloc's third- and fourth-largest economies — and require them to ask for a bailout, German voters could panic, said Niedermayer.

In Germany's election in September, the issue poses the greatest threat to the Free Democratic Party, Merkel's junior coalition partner, which has a pro-business platform. Because the party has polled only slightly above five percent, even the loss of a few thousand voters could mean disaster.

"It's not impossible that this new party could sap half a percent from the FDP and thereby kick them out of parliament," said Niedermayer. That could create a huge headache for Merkel, who may find it hard to form a workable majority in parliament without the FDP.

Merkel's own party, too, could suffer if conservative voters see Alternative for Germany as a credible way to express their frustration about her leadership.

Economist Rudolf Hickel told Germany's Deutsche Welle, however, that even though there is anti-euro sentiment out there, Alternative for Germany doesn't have broad enough appeal to effectively tap it.

"They are professors and frustrated economists," he said. "If the party were headed by a populist, I'd consider them dangerous."

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AP correspondents Kirsten Grieshaber and Kerstin Sopke contributed from Berlin.

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