By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN (Reuters) - Stefan Soppe says he quit Germany's new anti-euro party months after joining because he was outraged at its shift towards right-wing populism and by the autocratic style of its leaders.
The 45-year-old business consultant from the Ruhr town of Bottrop is not alone. At a time when the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had hoped to be building momentum before European Parliament elections in May, the party is struggling to contain infighting, define its message and stem an exodus of members.
"Hundreds have quit as the party has moved ever further to the right and become nationalistic," Soppe told Reuters. He says he has received numerous threats by phone and email since he left and began criticizing the party publicly.
The AfD did not respond to requests for clarification on how many members had quit the party, saying only that the membership numbered around 17,000, with 85 percent of those male.
At a conference on Saturday in the Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, the party will try to regain its footing with the launch of its European election campaign.
Formed nearly a year ago by academics, journalists and businessmen as Europe's debt crisis was raging, the AfD called for an end to the euro and a return of the Deutsche Mark.
The political consensus in Germany is clearly pro-European, but the party's message struck a chord with many people frustrated with hearing Chancellor Angela Merkel say that there was no alternative to bailing out struggling euro states.
The AfD scored 4.7 percent in a German election in September, nearly making it into the national parliament and fanning hopes of a strong showing in the European vote, where fringe parties on the left and right are expected to do well.
GERMANY'S "TEA PARTY"
Dubbed Germany's "Tea Party", the AfD is still given a good chance of making it into the European Parliament, as the threshold for entry is 3 percent, below the 5 percent required in German votes.
Recent polls show its support steady at 4-5 percent.
And political analysts say the AfD continues to attract protest voters, economic liberals who want an end to European bailouts and social conservatives disillusioned with Merkel's shift to the center.
The analysts doubt the Afd could achieve much at a European level, with few seats in Brussels, but it would give it a platform from which to campaign at home and eat into support for mainstream parties like Merkel's conservatives.
However, the easing of the euro crisis has forced the party to scrap its calls for an end to the single currency, muddying its message. And divisions within the AfD have become more apparent, with members like Soppe bolting because they believe the party is catering to the far-right.
"Nothing is good at the moment in the AfD," deputy leader Alexander Gauland was quoted as saying by German media last month, citing infighting in Hesse, Brandenburg, Bavaria, Berlin and Lower Saxony.
If the AfD does not get its act together and fails to make the 3 percent hurdle for the European election, Gauland warned, it would be effectively "dead".
In a bid to shed its image as a one-issue party focused on the euro, the AfD is drafting a more comprehensive policy program.
But that may backfire, says Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling group. He believes the more detail the AfD provides, the greater the risk that protest voters - who tend to see what they want to see in the AfD - will be alienated.
As the party tackles new issues, such as immigration, homosexuality and gender, the cacophony of diverging views within its ranks may grow louder.
Unlike some other anti-euro movements in Europe, such as the Dutch Freedom party of Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, the AfD says it is neither nationalist nor anti-immigration.
Concerned about its image in a country where overt nationalism in politics is frowned upon because of the crimes of the Nazi era, the AfD ousted senior members in the western state of Hesse over the past two months for their extreme views, in what one leader called a "cleansing procedure".
AfD leader Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, has ruled out working with Wilders or Le Pen, saying his party is closer to Britain's Conservatives.
But he has also railed against the threat of Bulgarians and Romanians "with eight children" moving to Germany for its welfare system.
And when a high-profile German soccer player won praise this month when he came out as gay, Lucke made clear he did not regard the move as brave. Better, he told AfD members, would have been an avowal of the importance of family and marriage.
Critics say the party is keenly mopping up support from far-right sympathizers, a tactic that may help them in regional elections later this year in eastern Germany where fringe views and frustration with the government are more widespread.
A poll earlier this month put support for the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony at 6 percent, while the far-right National Democratic Party was down at 1 percent, well below its 2009 score of nearly 6 percent.
In response, Soppe says he and hundreds of allies have joined together to try to bring the party down. "We've formed a resistance," he said.
(Reporting By Sarah Marsh; Editing by Noah Barkin and Mike Collett-White)