BERLIN (Reuters) - Bernd Lucke, the economics professor who launched the Alternative for Germany (AfD) two years ago to fight euro zone bailouts, said on Wednesday he would leave the party due to rising xenophobia and pro-Russian sentiment in its ranks.
Lucke, 52, was the face of the party in the run-up to the German federal vote in 2013 and led the AfD to a successful showing in European Parliament elections the following year, unsettling Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
But over the past year, he has been in open conflict with the AfD's east German wing, led by 40-year-old businesswoman Frauke Petry, to whom he lost a leadership vote last weekend.
Petry helped lead the party to strong showings in three eastern state votes last year, boosting her influence and shifting the party's focus from the euro to immigration issues.
She and other eastern AfD members flirted openly with the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement which drew up to 25,000 people to rallies in the city of Dresden earlier this year.
In a letter made available to Reuters, Lucke said he would formally leave the party on Friday out of concern that it was becoming "islamophobic and xenophobic". He also cited anti-western, pro-Russian leanings and growing public criticism of the United States by AfD members.
"I certainly made my share of mistakes, and among the biggest was realizing too late the extent to which members were pushing the AfD to become a populist protest party," Lucke said.
Lucke's departure could further erode support for the AfD, which at its peak was polling around 9 percent.
At a time when the deepening Greek crisis might be expected to give the party a boost, its image has been tarnished by constant sniping among its members. A Forsa poll for Stern magazine on Wednesday showed support for the AfD at 4 percent.
Lucke, a member of the European Parliament, acknowledged in the letter that some members were urging him to launch a new party to promote the economic liberalism and conservative family values the AfD espoused at its start. But he said he had not taken a decision to do so yet.
(Writing by Noah Barkin)