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What does the far-right AfD’s success in Thuringia mean for Germany?

The Left party won, the far-right AfD scored another major success and the CDU suffered historic losses. What do the Thuringia election results mean for Germany?

What does the far-right AfD's success in Thuringia mean for Germany?
Björn Höcke, chairman of the AfD in Thuringia, celebrating the result. Photo: DPA

Who won?

Die Linke (the Left), a far-left party with its roots in the former East German communist party, are the winners but the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) also has reason to celebrate.

The Left scooped 31 percent of the vote in Thuringia's state election on Sunday, marking the first time the party has come out on top in a regional vote in Germany. 

Volker Hinck, press spokesman for The Left in Thuringia told The Local it was a “historic victory for our party”.

But despite the strong performance, it’s going to be difficult to put together a coalition.

READ ALSO: AfD surges to second place in Thuringia state election

The party, led by state premier Bodo Ramelow, currently rules Thuringia with the centre-left Social Democrats  (SPD) and the Greens.

But after Sunday’s election, this 'red-red-green coalition' will no longer have a majority in the regional parliament. The SPD received just 8.2 per cent of the vote (compared to 12.4 percent in 2014).

The Greens won just 5.2 percent, down from 5.7 percent in 2014. It's likely to be a major disappointment for the party that's been riding high recently but has always struggled to gain support in eastern states.

The AfD surged into second place with 23.4 percent, more than doubling its share of the vote since the last state election in 2014.

The CDU tumbled down to 21.8 percent, from 33.5 percent in 2014. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) won 5 percent, up from 2.5 percent compared to 2014.

Bodo Ramelow of The Left with his partner celebrating Sunday's result. Photo: DPA

So is the AfD happy about the result?

They no doubt will be. Dresden-based political scientist and commentator Werner Patzelt told The Local it was a “big success” for the party that rallies against immigration.

“It’s increased their share significantly, they’ve become the second strongest party,” he said. 

The AfD's strong performance came despite widespread criticism after an attack on October 9th in the eastern city of Halle, where a suspected neo-Nazi gunman tried and failed to storm a synagogue then shot dead two people outside.

After the attack, the commissioner for combating anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, like many other critics, argued that the AfD had stirred up anti-Jewish sentiment.

READ ALSO: Jewish groups voice fear over German far-right spike

The Thuringia campaign has been marked by anger, threats and recriminations, with CDU candidate Mike Mohring labelling the AfD's local leader, the nationalist hardliner Björn Höcke, a “Nazi”.

Patzelt said the result was “despite the fact that the AfD in Thuringia is the most radical part of the AfD throughout Germany”.

“So many would have expected that all the arguments claiming this is a party of racists, nationalists and led by a fascist – would prevent people voting from voting for the AfD,” he added.

“But this did not do the trick. This is one more indicator of how much political power is behind the AfD.”

Two extreme parties came out on top in Thuringia. What does this mean?

To onlookers it's interesting to see that a far-left party and a far-right party have won over voters in Thuringia. An interactive map by local newspaper the Thürginer Allgemeine shows the percentage of people who voted for the Left or AfD in different areas.

“The last time we saw something of this kind in Germany was in the Weimar republic where political life was polarized between the communists and the National Socialists so this is quite uncommon,” said Patzelt.

However, the Left is an established party in Germany and not viewed as super extreme, although some hardline conservatives would argue differently.

“The Linke is in Thuringia is, or at least gives the impression of being a social democratic party,” said Patzelt. “The chair Bodo Ramelow has conducted a very pragmatic policy. Voters want him to say in office. It's quite unusual for Left political leaders in Germany to be so popular.”

So as well as being a more moderate party, at least in Thuringia, the Left under Ramelow has a good track record.

And Left spokesman Hinck told The Local the party hopes to continue building on its projects in the area.

“Firstly we want to continue our work in the school sector, we want better structures in the rural areas and more mobility,” he said.

“We also have a great challenge with the transformation of the automobile sector – because of climate change we want to invest to transform to a more climate-friendly production but we want to protect the industry structure that we have in Thuringia.”

Hinck said the party is also piloting a basic income project in a small community.

However, the party will have to fend off the AfD if it wants to stay in power in Thuringia.

Hinck added that the strong result for the party is “sending a strong message that you can achieve victory with a clear anti-racist and anti-fascist attitude in elections”.

Who will go into a coalition?

Here is where it’s going to get really tricky. So far all other political parties have refused to form coalitions with the populist AfD at a state or national level.

The new state parliament in Thuringia will have 90 seats. The Left will have 29 seats, the CDU 21, and the AfD 22. The SPD sends 8 delegates to the state parliament, while the Greens and FDP each have five seats.

READ ALSO: CDU election candidate receives second far-right 'death threat'

In purely mathematical terms, three coalition options are possible: The Left, SPD and Greens could remain in power, but they would have to bring the pro-business FDP on board as well to achieve a narrow majority of 47 seats. 

It would also technically be possible for the Left and CDU to work together (50 seats) as well as the Left and AfD (51 seats). But they are both quite unlikely. 

However the CDU’s top Thuringia candidate Mohring on Monday said he was open to talks with The Left, even though his party had previously ruled out this coalition.

Mohring told Germany’s ARD show that for the first time, there was no longer a majority for the “political centre”. “But that doesn't mean that we can stand in a corner, we have to take responsibility,” he said.

“For me, stable relations are more important for the country than party-political interests alone,” he added. “State premier Bodo Ramelow clearly won the election with the Left, but his current red-red-green government no longer has a majority because of the weakness of its partners.”

What does it mean for Merkel's CDU?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Mike Mohring and Angela Merkel of the CDU on Monday. Photo: DPA

A partnership between the far-left party and the CDU raises more problems for the CDU at a federal level and would benefit the AfD in the long run, political expert Patzelt argues.

“This would be like the kiss of death for the CDU because the AfD could use the argument in all coming electoral campaigns that voting for the CDU is the equivalent of voting for the Green party or the Left Party,” he said. “So if the CDU really is taking this course it spells the beginning of the end for the CDU party.”

This state election is just the latest to send warning signals to the coalition, made up of the Christian Democrats and the SPD, in Berlin.

The Christian Democrats, led by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with Angela Merkel as Chancellor, need to decide how they will move forward and how they can win back voters.

Since Merkel's controversial decision to keep Germany's borders open in 2015 during the height of the refugee crisis, the party has become split and the AfD has achieved meteoric success, scooping up many disillusioned CDU voters.

Political experts say the party needs to decide if it will move further to the right and gain back some of its political territory or continue as it is.

“Many Germans are wondering how many political defeats the CDU can suffer and what it is going to take for this party to understand why it is losing votes to the AfD and not recovering from the policy mistakes made by Angela Merkel,” said Patzelt.

Will the AfD's success continue?

There is no doubt that the AfD is stronger in eastern German states compared to western states.

The group, which started out as a radical protest party, made huge gains in two eastern state elections at the beginning of September.

In Saxony, the AfD almost tripled its result to 27.5 percent – its strongest state result ever. And in Brandenburg, the AfD received 23.5 percent of the vote.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the AfD surge in regional German elections

“My analysis leads me to the sad conclusion that the AfD will not fade away,” Patzelt said.

“The party will gain importance even in west Germany because with the CDU going hand in hand with the Green or Left party, (in possible coalitions) the AfD really begins to be what it claims to be: the alternative to the established party political system. This is why voters will – even in future – vote for the AfD.”

However, controversy or actions of individuals could be what eventually stops the rise, although that hasn't happened so far.

The party in Thuringia is led by Höcke, who has come under fire in the past for incidents such as when he criticized the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, describing it as a “memorial of shame”.

He is part of the extreme wing of the party and if they choose to go futher in this direction it could have an impact on voting behaviour.

“In other words the only political source that can defeat the AfD right now is the AfD leadership itself,” Patzelt said.

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For members


Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?

Unlike in EU countries such as Portugal or Spain, Germany does not have a visa specifically for pensioners. Yet applying to live in the Bundesrepublik post-retirement is not difficult if you follow these steps.

Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?
Two pensioners enjoying a quiet moment in Dresden in August 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Due to its quality of life, financial security and health care, Germany snagged the number 10 spot in the 2020 Global Retirement Index. So just how easy is it to plant roots in Deutschland after your retirement?

Applying for a residency permit

As with any non-EU or European Economic Area (EEA) national looking to stay in Germany for longer than a 90-day period, retirees will need to apply for a general resident’s permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) under which it will be possible to select retirement as a category. 

READ ALSO: How does Germany’s pension system measure up worldwide?

This is the same permit for those looking to work and study in Germany – but if you would like to do either after receiving a residency permit, you will need to explicitly change the category of the visa.

Applicants from certain third countries (such as the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Canada, and New Zealand) can first come to Germany on a normal tourist visa, and then apply for a residency permit when in the country. 

However, for anyone looking to spend their later years in Germany, it’s still advisable to apply at their home country’s consulate at least three months in advance to avoid any problems while in Germany.

Retirement visas still aren’t as common as employment visas, for example, so there could be a longer processing time. 

What do you need to retire in Germany?

To apply for a retirement visa, you’ll need proof of sufficient savings (through pensions, savings and investments) as well as a valid German health insurance. 

If you have previously worked in Germany for at least five years, you could qualify for Pensioner’s Health Insurance. Otherwise you’ll need to apply for one of the country’s many private health insurance plans. 

Take note, though, that not all are automatically accepted by the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office), so this is something you’ll need to inquire about before purchasing a plan. 

READ ALSO: The perks of private health insurance for expats in Germany

The decision is still at the discretion of German authorities, and your case could be made stronger for various reasons, such as if you’re joining a family member or are married to a German. Initially retirement visas are usually given out for a year, with the possibility of renewal. 

Once you’ve lived in Germany for at least five full years, you can apply for a permanent residency permit, or a Niederlassungserlaubnis. To receive this, you will have to show at least a basic knowledge of the German language and culture.

READ ALSO: How to secure permanent residency in Germany

Taxation as a pensioner

In the Bundesrepublik, pensions are still listed as taxable income, meaning that you could be paying a hefty amount on the pension from your home country. But this is likely to less in the coming years.

Tax is owed when a pensioner’s total income exceeds the basic tax-free allowance of €9,186 per year, or €764 per month. From 2020 the annual taxable income for pensioners will increase by one percent until 2040 when a full 100 percent of pensions will be taxable.

American retirees in Germany will also still have to file US income taxes, even if they don’t owe any taxes back in the States. 

In the last few years there has been a push around Germany to raise the pension age to 69, up from 65-67, in light of rising lifespans.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could people in Germany still be working until the age of 68?