Thuringia set to elect new state leader after far-right vote debacle

Lawmakers in the eastern German state of Thuringia will try again to elect a new state premier Wednesday, re-running a vote that sank Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling CDU party into what has been described as the biggest crisis in its history.

Thuringia set to elect new state leader after far-right vote debacle
AfD supporters protest outside the Thuringian state parliament with a flag that says: 'We are the people'. Photo: DPA

It is the second attempt in a month to form a working government in the former East German state, after CDU MPs there unleashed an earthquake in national politics by voting with the far-right AfD in February.

Amid the national outrage, the liberal candidate elected during the first vote on February 5 stepped down, leaving the state rudderless.

But more significantly, the apparent cooperation of CDU politicians with the far-right triggered the departure of Merkel's designated successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and sparked a new leadership contest for the German chancellor's party.

The race to a new CDU leadership election on April 25th is a fresh struggle for control between supporters of the chancellor's centrist course and those who believe the party must tack right.

But so far none has offered a convincing answer to the CDU's conundrum in Thuringia, squeezed between the extremes of left and right.

Popular local politician and former state premier Bodo Ramelow of the far-left Die Linke is now up against far-right firebrand Björn Höcke, with Merkel's conservatives once again the reluctant kingmakers.


New force on the right

A fundamental article of faith for the CDU during its decades of dominance of German politics since 1949 was that no political force could be allowed to emerge to its right.

It long provided a home for hardliners on issues like immigration, integration and refugees.

The Left's Bodo Ramelow last month. Photo: DPA

But Merkel has shifted the party to closer to the centre.

The repeated rescue programmes for Greece during the eurozone crisis and above all, Merkel's decision to allow in more than one million migrants and refugees since 2015 stoked the rise of the AfD.

The far-right is especially strong in Germany's former communist east, which did not go through the same process of facing up to its Nazi past as the democratic west.

Graph prepared for The Local by Statista.

Double-digit scores for AfD in state elections in recent years have made it increasingly tough to build working coalitions that shut out both far right and the radical-left Left party.

With the party leadership – and likely the candidacy for the chancellorship in 2021 – now up for grabs, those tensions are boiling to the surface.

Some contenders such as long-time Merkel rival Friedrich Merz are advocating a return to the party's conservative roots and winning back voters lost to AfD.

Meanwhile moderates argue the party cannot hope to hang on to masses of centrist supporters if it abandons Merkel's course.

Impossible choice

With no majority possible in Thuringia without either AfD or the Left, the state has become a unique crucible for the CDU's repeated declarations that it would work with neither.

Earlier this month, its MPs voted with AfD to install Thomas Kemmerich from the liberal FDP as state premier, ousting popular Left premier Ramelow.

Faced with national outrage at the unprecedented alliance, the Thuringian CDU branch immediately backed down and its leader quit, but it remains confronted with an impossible choice.

The AfD's Björn Höcke congratulating the FDP's Thomas Kemmerich after the first vote that sparked outrage. Photo: DPA

“CDU votes for a Left party candidate are unacceptable,” moderate party leadership contender Armin Laschet said Sunday, echoing conservative rivals like Merz.

Tilman Kuban, leader of the party's national youth wing, even suggested Monday that MPs “leave the chamber” during the state premier vote to avoid the impression they had cooperated with AfD or the Left.

If Ramelow — whose previous broad left coalition is four votes short of a majority — fails to secure a mandate as state premier, the result will likely be more months with no regional government in Thuringia until fresh elections.

Meanwhile there is little chance of AfD contender Höcke winning.

One of the most radical voices within AfD, the former history teacher's rhetoric includes calls for “tempered inhumanity” in removing non-ethnic Germans from the country.

Such declarations have placed him beyond the pale even for the more hardline eastern CDU branches.

By Kit Holden

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EU ministers urge unity after Germany’s energy ‘bazooka’

EU finance ministers on Monday pleaded for unity after Germany announced a €200 billion plan to help German households and businesses pay for high energy prices, amid accusations that the EU's biggest economy was acting alone.

EU ministers urge unity after Germany's energy 'bazooka'

Europe is struggling with historically high energy prices as it faces an early autumn cold snap and a coming winter almost certainly to be endured without crucial Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine.

Many EU countries have announced national programmes to shield consumers from the high prices. But Germany went the furthest on Friday when it announced its mammoth plan, which will see help pouring to Germans for two years.

Arriving to talk with his eurozone counterparts, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner insisted the spending was “proportionate” to the size of Germany’s economy and said his goal was to use as little of the money as possible.

READ ALSO: Germany to spend €200 billion to cap soaring energy costs

But Germany’s largesse rankled several EU capitals, some of which feared their industries could take severe blows while Germany’s sits protected, deforming the EU’s single market.

Outgoing Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has slammed Berlin for its lack of solidarity and coordination with EU partners.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, without directly criticizing Berlin, called on partners to agree a common strategy against the price shock and for countries to refrain from going it alone.

“The more this strategy is coordinated, united, the better it is for all of us,” he said.

Risk to ‘European unity’

Others pointed to the unprecedented solidarity shown in the Covid-19 crisis in which the 27 EU nations, against all expectations, approved a jointly financed €750 billion recovery plan.

“Solidarity is not only on the German shoulders, I think this is something that we have to deliver at European level,” said EU economics affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni.

“We have very good examples from the previous crisis on how solidarity can react to a crisis and also reassure financial markets. I think that this is our goal,” he said.

While a Covid-style recovery plan is not in the cards for now, Le Maire said €200 billion in loans and €20 billion in aid should be devoted to REPowerEU, a programme to help countries break their dependence on Russian gas.

READ ALSO: Will Germany set a gas price cap – and how would it work?

Bruegel, a highly influential think tank in Brussels, called the German plan a spending “bazooka” that many EU countries were unable to match, creating a potential source of animosity.

“If the German gas price brake gives German business a much better chance to survive the crisis than, say, Italian business, economic divergences in the EU could be deepened, and European unity on Russia undermined,” it said in a blog.