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Joerg Meuthen of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) during a news conference at the Bundespressekonferenz in Berlin, Germany, March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt(reuters_tickers)
By Michelle Martin
BERLIN (Reuters) - The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party called for the country to get rid of at least 200,000 more people a year than it takes in, as it faces a plunge in its popularity before elections this autumn.
The target for "negative immigration" ("Minuszuwanderung") would be necessary for several years, according to a draft election programme the AfD released on Thursday, although it did not specify whether the quota would be met by migrants leaving voluntarily, by deportation or both.
At the same time, the co-leader of the AfD said he was not alarmed about plunging support in polls. Its support has dropped to between 8 and 11 percent from a high of 15.5 percent at the end of 2016.
Bitter infighting, a drop in migrant arrivals and a Social Democrat candidate who looks like a fresh alternative to Chancellor Angela Merkel have hurt its fortunes.
"The falling poll numbers ... doesn't worry me in the least," AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen told Reuters. "Okay, they're down now - that's happened several times before and the key thing is how we're doing at the time of the election, and I think we're on top there - especially due to this programme."
He added he was not concerned about a reduction in the number of migrants arriving here hitting the party's popularity because the AfD also had strong positions on other issues such as taxes, defence, health policy and housing policy.
The party could reach nearly 20 percent in the Sept. 24 election at best and just under 10 percent at worst, Meuthen said.
Scandal rocked the AfD earlier this year when Bjoern Hoecke, the party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, called Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a "monument of shame". He has also caused controversy by denying Adolf Hitler was "absolutely evil" in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
At a news conference on Thursday, party members declined to comment on the controversy. But Meuthen told Reuters while he was critical of Hoecke's views, the party had nothing to do with National Socialism.
"We're a party in which certain things are not accepted and that includes National Socialist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and racist positions - we don't tolerate them," Meuthen said.
Two-thirds of the AfD's executive have voted to oust Hoecke. A party arbitration body must now decide whether to let that stand. The issue has triggered a spate of ugly infighting.
In its election programme, the party criticised reducing Germany's history to the Nazi era and urged a "wider view of history that also includes aspects of German history that have contributed to our identity in a positive way".
The party also called for the introduction of a minimum quota for deportations, said the borders should be closed immediately to end "uncontrolled mass immigration" and said only qualified people should be allowed to come to Germany.
It said all rejected asylum seekers should be sent back to their countries of origin and it should be possible to withdraw German nationality from migrants who commit serious crimes.
The AfD is projected to emerge from the election as the third biggest party. But it is ostracised by its mainstream rivals, so has no chance of joining any government.
(Writing by Michelle Martin,; editing by Erik Kirschbaum, Larry King)