China, Russia claims push German far-right deeper in crisis

AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla face damaging allegations about an EU parliamentarian's aide accused of spying for China (Odd ANDERSEN)
AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla face damaging allegations about an EU parliamentarian's aide accused of spying for China (Odd ANDERSEN)
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German prosecutors Wednesday said they had opened a preliminary probe into a far-right AfD politician over reports of suspicious payments from Russia and China, sinking the anti-immigration party deeper in crisis in a key election year.

The AfD was already struggling to contain fallout from the arrest on Monday of a parliamentary aide of its leading candidate for European Union elections in June over suspicions of spying for China.

But the candidate, Maximilian Krah, was now the focus of two separate initial probes into possible corruption.

"Preliminary investigation proceedings" have been launched against Krah "to examine whether there is any initial suspicion of criminal conduct involving bribery of a member of parliament," prosecutors said in a statement.

Krah had previously been caught up in Russian propaganda allegations, before the arrest of Jian Guo, his aide.

Despite Guo's arrest, Krah had said he would remain the top candidate for the party, following crisis talks with the AfD's co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla on Wednesday.

The controversial politician will however not attend the official launch this weekend of the party's EU vote race "so as not to damage the election campaign and the standing of the party", the joint leaders said.

The developments have left the AfD in emergency mode seven weeks before the EU elections and ahead of three key regional polls in Germany in September.

The party was riding high in opinion polls at the end of last year on around 22 percent -- ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) and second only to the main opposition conservatives.

But it has since seen a significant drop in support as it contends with various controversies, with one survey this week putting it on 16 percent.

- 'Descending into chaos' -

In January, an investigation by media group Correctiv indicated AfD members had discussed the idea of mass deportations at a meeting with extremists, leading to a wave of protests across the country.

More recently, Krah and another AfD candidate for the EU elections, Petr Bystron, have  denied allegations they accepted money to spread pro-Russian positions on a Moscow-financed news website.

And Bjoern Hoecke, one of the AfD's most controversial politicians and the party head  in Thuringia state, is on trial for publicly using a banned Nazi slogan.

Scholz on Wednesday called the Chinese spying allegations "very worrying", without commenting in detail.

Dirk Wiese, a senior SPD politician, told the Rheinische Post newspaper the AfD was "descending into chaos".

"First the allegations of sleazy money payments from the Kremlin, now suspected espionage for China... What's next, North Korea?" he said.

The AfD's parliamentary group chief Bernd Baumann slammed the allegations as "politically motivated" and put them down to "dirty" electioneering.

"We have become pretty hardened when it comes to accusations, especially in pre-election and election campaign times," he said, blaming "suspicious reporting" for many of the claims.

- End of an era? -

Asked about the alleged links to Russia, Chrupalla said that "as long as no evidence and proof is put on the table, we cannot react".

Chrupalla also remained reticent on the China issue, stressing that no charges had been brought and the party leadership would "wait and see" how the case develops before coming to any conclusions.

The AfD is still polling neck-and-neck with the SPD at the national level and in first place in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, all holding regional polls in September.

But Hajo Funke, a political analyst who specialises in the far right, said support for the party has "fallen considerably in some cases" because of the scandals.

"Overall, I believe that the great era of 'we are doing better and better' has come to an end," he told AFP.