Far-right AfD vows 'new era' at German parliament debut

Hui Min NEO

Berlin (AFP) - The far-right AfD party vowed a "new era" as it made its debut Tuesday at the first sitting of Germany's newly-elected parliament, where it immediately sparked an outcry by comparing itself to an MP once targeted by notorious Nazi Hermann Goering.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) filed a motion to challenge a change in parliamentary rules that thwarted one of its lawmakers from making the opening speech in the lower house.

Defeated by the rest of the lawmakers, the AfD's parliamentary group chief Bernd Baumann drew an erroneous comparison to a move he claimed Goering made in 1933 to block communist MP Clara Zetkin from opening the sitting.

The quip drew gasps from the floor and was slammed as "tasteless" by Marco Buschmann of the liberal FDP party.

German news agency DPA swiftly corrected Baumann's account, noting that Goering's action had actually blocked a member of his own party rather than Zetkin from opening parliament that year.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) chief Martin Schulz said "this unspeakable reference to Hermann Goering, this calculated reference to the Reichstag's president who led the German Reichstag to a dictatorship, that I find was a disturbing moment."

The flare-up appeared to be a harbinger of future Bundestag sittings. The AfD's leading figures have repeatedly smashed taboos by staking claims to German identity and challenging Germany's culture of atonement over World War II and the Holocaust.

"Take note: the old Bundestag has been voted out. The people have decided, a new era begins now," said the AfD's Baumann.

"From this hour on, the issues will be renegotiated -- not your manoeuvres and tricks on parliamentary business but the euro, massive debt, enormous immigration numbers, open borders and brutal criminality in our streets," he vowed.

- 'Queasy' -

The AfD's arrival in the Bundestag is nothing short of a political earthquake in post-war Germany.

Railing against the more than one million asylum seekers who have come to Germany since 2015, the Islamaphobic party had capitalised on anger among some Germans over the new arrivals.

Ahead of Tuesday's session, Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the AfD's presence in parliament gave him a "queasy feeling".

"It's a depressing and unsettling feeling to know that there are now people sitting in the Bundestag who appear to want to hide the Nazi past and to target Muslims and asylum seekers," he told the Juedische Allgemeine, a Jewish publication.

Tuesday's meeting also saw veteran former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, 75, elected as speaker of the house, as was widely expected.

Schaeuble, known for his caustic wit, was reportedly asked by Merkel to take on the role to stop the AfD running riot at the Bundestag.

When the MPs on Tuesday moved on to electing vice-chairs at the Bundestag, the AfD courted controversy again with their nominee Albrecht Glaser, who has claimed that the fundamental right to freedom of religion should not apply to Islam.

Defending Glaser's view, AfD MP Beatrix von Storch, granddaughter of Adolf Hitler's finance minister, wrote on Twitter: "Islam does not only seek to regulate issues surrounding beliefs, but also legal and societal matters. Religious freedom therefore does not apply here."

Each party reserves the right to nominate a vice-chair of the lower house, but he or she has to be elected by parliament.

All three attempts by the AfD to get Glaser elected failed.

- SPD takes aim at Merkel -

Chancellor Angela Merkel's former coalition partner, the venerable SPD, also took on a combative tone from the opposition benches.

In the party's first speech at the house, senior SPD lawmaker Carsten Schneider ripped into Merkel, saying she is "the reason that we have a right-wing populist party here".

The frontal attack was met with shock by Merkel's CDU party, with general secretary Peter Tauber condemning it on Twitter, saying "First shenanigans not coming from the AfD, but from the elderly aunt SPD. How low has she sunk!"

Merkel is now scrambling to form a coalition with parties that have opposing views on a string of issues from migration to environmental protection.

Coalition talks with the left-leaning Greens and the FDP began last week.

The potential alliance, which would be a first for Germany at the national level, has been dubbed "Jamaica" because the parties' black, yellow and green colours match those of the Caribbean country's flag.