Members of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) voted on Monday to expel one of the party's state leaders who called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame."
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The AfD, which has lawmakers in 10 of Germany's 16 regional parliaments, is expected to become the third-largest party in the Bundestag federal lower house after an election on September 24.
In a speech, Bjoern Hoecke, the party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, slammed Germany's "culture of remembering Nazi crimes," saying history books should be rewritten to focus on German victims. His remarks about the Holocaust memorial were cheered by supporters and criticized by politicians, including some who called him a Nazi.
Even some senior AfD members say speeches like the one by Hoecke damage its image and dent its chances in the election.
Two-thirds of regional AfD leaders voted during a conference call to start a legal process within the party to oust Hoecke, who said in a statement he regrets the party's decision.
"I am convinced that I have breached neither the statute nor the rules of the party," he said.
The party's arbitration body in Thuringia will now have to decide whether to accept the motion, the party said in an emailed statement. Should that body reject the motion, the party could turn to its federal arbitration body for a final ruling.
Set up in 2013 by an economist to oppose euro zone bailouts, the AfD has since morphed into an anti-immigration party, drawing support from Germans angry about Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to welcome refugees.
Party co-leader Joerg Meuthen, seen as representing a moderate wing in the party, said the Thuringia body was likely to reject the motion as Hoecke's remarks in a speech did not provide sufficient grounds for expulsion.
Meuthen voted against the motion.
"The expulsion process faces major hurdles," he told Reuters. "The resolution is excessive."
The party said the decision was taken after a thorough examination of Hoecke's speech to young AfD supporters in January in Dresden, home to the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement.