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‘It’s unforgivable’: Why Merkel and Germany are up in arms after shock far-right AfD vote

The new premier of Thuringia has stepped down after he was elected with the help of far-right AfD lawmakers in a vote Angela Merkel called "unforgivable". Here's why this is Germany's latest political crisis.

'It's unforgivable': Why Merkel and Germany are up in arms after shock far-right AfD vote
In Munich a protester holds a sign that says: 'Does the F in FDP stand for fascism?' Photo: DPA

On Wednesday all political hell broke loose in Germany after Thomas Kemmerich, from the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), won a vote to become premier in the central eastern state of Thuringia despite his party having just five seats in the local parliament.

He stepped down on Thursday after an outcry across Germany. Here's how the drama played out.

What’s happened?

What became apparent was that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had backed Kemmerich in the vote, effectively pushing incumbent Bodo Ramelow of the Left party (die Linke) out of office.

Kemmerich scored 45 votes, beating Ramelow, who has been state premier in Thuringia since 2014, by one vote.

People from across the political spectrum have accused both the FDP and the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) of tacit cooperation with the AfD, and there are now calls for new elections.

Chancellor Merkel on Thursday said it was “unforgivable” that a politician in Thuringia allowed himself to be elected state premier with help from MPs from the far-right AfD, calling for the vote to take place again.

What happened in Thuringia “is unforgivable and that's why the result must be reversed,” Merkel said at a press conference in South Africa.

She added that it was “a bad day for democracy”.

The Frankfurter Rundschau ran with a picture of Thomas Kemmerich shaking hands with the AfD's Björn Höcke with the headline: “The fascist and his tool”.

Bild ran the same picture with the headline: “The handshake of shame.”

On Wednesday night protests took place in several German cities, including Erfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Munich.

READ ALSO: 'First time in history': Far-right AfD backing for regional politician shocks Germany

A protester holds a 'never again' poster in Munich. Photo: DPA

Around a thousand people gathered in front of the Thuringian State Chancellery on Wednesday night, forming a human chain. Some chanted: “Who betrayed us? Free Democrats!” and “Not my state premier!”

In Berlin, more than a thousand demonstrators gathered in front of the party headquarters of the FDP and CDU.

People shared clips on social media of the protests.

Why is it so controversial?

The regional election in Thuringia last October saw the Left come out on top as the most popular party with 31 percent of the vote.

The party was unable to hold onto a majority coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens but carried on with a minority coalition.

Still, Ramelow, a popular local politician, was widely expected to win the vote and continue as state premier.

The FDP scraped into the Thuringia state parliament, winning just five seats so it is by all accounts absurd that they should have a leader in place. 

READ ALSO: What does the far-right AfD's success in Thuringia mean for Germany?

The AfD's Björn Höcke congratulating the FDP's Thomas Kemmerich. Photo: DPA

The candidate for the AfD, which surged into second place in last year’s regional elections with 23.4 percent, received zero votes, indicating the party's politicians aligned as a bloc behind Kemmerich.

While the vote was secret, the liberal candidate must also have enjoyed support from lawmakers belonging to Merkel's conservative CDU, as well as his FDP colleagues.

Adding to the fire is the fact that AfD's leader there, Höcke, is one of the party's most radical figures, heading a movement within the party known as the “Wing”.

He has in the past called for a “180 degree turn” in Germany's culture of remembrance for the Holocaust and other crimes of the Nazis, which form a central pillar of the country's post-World War II political life.

Last September, a court ruled that Höcke could legally be termed a fascist as the description “rests on verifiable fact”.

FDP boss Christian Lindner said the vote had not been agreed beforehand with the AfD. He said he was surprised by the outcome, and that the AfD’s vote for his candidate had been “purely tactical”.

What’s the reaction?

It’s been described as a “political earthquake” with implications at all levels.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU immediately called for fresh regional elections as a way out of the crisis, a call echoed by other mainstream parties, reported AFP.

The result sparked widespread outrage, with Norbert Walter-Borjans, co-leader of Merkel's junior coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD), calling for a “clear position” distancing Merkel's conservatives from the AfD.

“What has happened in Thuringia is not just a matter for Thuringia” but for federal politics too, he told broadcaster ZDF.

“This is a bad day for Thuringia, a bad day for Germany,” CDU president Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

The Left's Bodo Ramelow on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

She called for new elections in the state and blasted regional politicians for breaching the party's policy of no cooperation with the AfD.

“New elections would be the best thing for Thuringia,” the CDU's secretary general Paul Ziemiak added.

Members of the two government parties, CDU and he SPD, organized a crisis meeting in Berlin on Saturday to discuss the issue.

“The republic is in danger,” said Katja Kipping, a leader of the far-left Linke party.

“How far have we come that the FDP allows a state premier Kemmerich to be voted in with votes from the fascist Höcke and the AfD?”, said The Left's Bernd Riexinger. “Breaking this taboo will have far-reaching consequences.”

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

Addressing the local parliament in Erfurt, Kemmerich sought to play down concerns by insisting he would stick to a pre-election pledge not to work with the AfD.

“You have in me a bitter opponent of anything that even hints at radicalism, from the right or left, or fascism,” he said, but he faced jeers from MPs and shouts of “Hypocrite!” and “Charlatan!”.

AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily the vote showed there was “less distance” between the CDU, FDP and AfD than other parties, showing the movement was part of a “middle class” majority.

It would be “understandable” if the AfD demanded ministerial jobs in Kemmerich's government, he added.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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