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AfD debuts at first sitting in Bundestag, possible battles ahead with far-right nominee

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AfD debuts at first sitting in Bundestag, possible battles ahead with far-right nominee
The plenary hall in the Bundestag had to be rebuilt earlier in September before the first sitting of the new parliament. Photo: DPA.
09:18 CEST+02:00
Dozens of lawmakers from the far-right AfD party make their debut on Tuesday at the first sitting of Germany's newly-elected parliament, an unprecedented showing for a nationalist force since the Second World War.

A record 709 MPs will gather for the session, with all eyes on the 92 members from Alternative for Germany (AfD), which took 12.6 percent of the vote in September's watershed elections and became the country's third biggest party.

The AfD's arrival in the Bundestag unleashed a political earthquake in post-war Germany, as leading figures in the party have repeatedly smashed taboos through their claims on German identity or by challenging Germany's culture of atonement over World War II and the Holocaust.

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.

Two days ahead of the session, thousands of people holding up "Stop AfD" signs demonstrated outside the parliament building in Berlin.

Thousands marched in Berlin against the AfD on Sunday. Photo: DPA. 

Although Tuesday will be a housekeeping session rather than a policy-making one, it is already shaping up to be contentious as the Islamophobic and anti-immigration AfD seeks to makes its presence felt.

As polls in the run-up to the September 24th vote predicted that the AfD would win seats, Germany's mainstream parties tweaked parliamentary rules to block the AfD from getting the symbolic post of interim speaker.

Rather than conferring the role of interim speaker on the oldest MP, it now goes to the lawmaker with the longest political experience - in this case, outgoing Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

The veteran minister known for his caustic wit is expected to be formally elected as speaker for the term.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly asked Schäuble to take the post to rein in the AfD in parliament.

But while the AfD has been thwarted from securing the symbolic interim post, another battle is brewing on Tuesday as MPs elect vice-chairs at the Bundestag.

Battles ahead

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

The far-right party plans to put forward Albrecht Glaser, who has claimed that the fundamental right to freedom of religion should be withdrawn for Islam.

Although mainstream parties have said they would oppose the nominee, AfD party co-chief Alexander Gauland told Bild am Sonntag: "If he fails during the first election, we will nominate him again. Mr Glaser represents positions on Islam that all of us in AfD represent."

The dispute risks turning Tuesday's session into a farce as there is no limit to the number of times that a party can put a nominee up for a vote.

During the planning of the parliamentary sitting, mainstream parties were also left squabbling over who should sit next to the far-right entrants.

The AfD had won over voters angry with Merkel over the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers since 2015.

Although Merkel's conservative alliance won the September elections by a comfortable margin, its score was its worst in decades.

Coalition hurdles 

After her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party went into opposition following a humiliating loss, Merkel is now scrambling to form a coalition with parties that have opposing views on a string of issues.

Coalition talks with the left-leaning Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party began on Tuesday, and all sides have hailed the first steps towards forming Germany's next government.

But many hurdles remain with a long list of flashpoints that range from migration to environmental protection.

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.

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