In the midst of the disaster of the Iowa Caucus and the almost apocalyptic news from China about the coronavirus, last Wednesday, another event shook the political life of the most powerful country in Europe. In the German state of Thuringia, a liberal party and Angela Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), allied with an extreme right-wing party to form a regional government and elect their preferred candidate, breaking a decades-long taboo surrounding political coalitions with far-right groups.
This has triggered widespread indignation and a growing number of mobilizations in different cities. Opposition forces demand that elections be called again, and the parties involved in the scandal are struggling to respond. This controversy has accentuated divisions in the federal government, to the point that Merkel requested that the former East German affairs minister, Christian Hirte, resign for celebrating the formation of the new regional government. Merkel’s chosen successor for the 2021 elections, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned from her position as leader of the CDU as a result of the scandal, amid accusations that she did not have control over her party. Since the upset election on February 6, the CDU has been hemorrhaging support—its approval ratings have dropped from 21.7% to 13%. In this context, the xenophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) appears to have gained ground amidst the chaos.
Thuringia, part of the dissolved German Democratic Republic or East Germany, is certainly one of the regions with the greatest political polarization in the country. Since the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, it has become a region with many inequalities, both political and social. Prosperous cities, such as Jena or Erfurt, coexist with rural areas that have not yet managed to insert themselves into the dynamics of the German economy. In these areas, there is widespread disappointment in Germany’s institutions; this unease is increasingly being channelled by the extreme right. However, Thuringia is also the most important stronghold of the left-wing party Die Linke (the Left Party) and the region where center-left forces still engage and share a political space with the working class. Until February 5, the governor of Thuringia was the charismatic Bodo Ramelow, a long-standing public figure on the German Left.
The regional elections for state governor were technically held in October 2019, but the election was put on hold because none of Thuringia’s parties could form a majority government; no party or coalition of parties had enough support to win the election. This phenomenon is becoming more common in Germany’s institutional political culture, which has become increasingly fragmented in the last decade.
The regional parliament has 90 seats, so to form a majority government and elect a governor, a party or coalition of parties needs at least 46 representatives in the assembly. In the initial election in October, Die Linke received 29 seats, the far-right AfD got 22, and the conservative Christian Democrats—Angela Merkel’s party–received just 21 seats. AfD’s success in the regional election shocked many in Germany and raised alarm bells around the country about the rising influence of the far-right. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) — a historically socialist party, but one that has been in constant decline for decades — was left with eight seats, the environmental party of the Greens had six, and the liberals of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) obtained only five.
After two unsuccessful parliamentary votes, a third vote was called for February 5. According to forecasts, it seemed very likely that Governor Ramelow would get the 46 votes needed to continue governing in alliance with the Greens and the SPD. Within this coalition, Ramelow had 42 votes, so he only needed 4 more. It was widely assumed that he would get these votes from the CDU, which did not have a candidate of its own, or from the FDP, since its own candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, had little chance of winning.
These predictions came crashing down when the chairwoman of the precinct, Brigit Keller, announced that the new governor of Thuringia was, miraculously, Thomas Kemmerich of the FDP. Surprisingly, the party had managed to secure the 46 votes needed to form a government, despite having obtained just over 5% in the elections. The most surprising thing about the election, however, was not Kemmerich’s upset win, but that it was made possible by the votes of the extreme-right AfD; in a particularly cunning maneuver, members of the AfD decided not to vote for their own candidate and to transfer those votes to Kemmerich, ensuring his victory.
With Kemmerich at the helm, FDP leaders came out to defend themselves, claiming that they were not responsible for the votes of other parties, referring to the AfD. They declared themselves completely separate from and politically opposed to the right-wing organization, even though it was that party’s votes that made the FDP’s win possible at all.
Denying these claims of innocence, a representative of Die Linke, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, claimed that the election of Kemmerich was not a matter of chance, but that it had been “intentionally planned” by the FDP, CDU, and AfD. The Social Democrats and the Greens have joined in this denunciation. Though representatives from the FDP and CDU have publicly denied the existence of any previous negotiations with fascist AfD, several reports have now surfaced of an agreement between the FDP, CDU, and AfD in the days leading up to the election. AfD members, amidst celebrations and smiles, confirmed this to the press.
Merkelism’s Death Knell?
The political establishment’s attempts to calm the situation have done nothing but exacerbate the cracks appearing in the German political apparatus. Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU, has not come out unscathed by the scandal. In the aftermath of the Thuringian election, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the party and the most faithful representative of Merkel’s politics within the CDU, stated that while the national leadership of the party had advised the regional leadership of Thuringia to avoid an alliance with Kemmerich for fear of the AfD, unfortunately the FDP followed its own path.
Her announcement unearthed a bigger problem within Germany’s ruling party and revealed the precariousness of Merkel’s regime. Merkel and other politicians at the national level made a show of decrying the alliance with a blatantly fascist party, but the coalition with the AfD was sponsored by the ultra-conservative Werte-Union (Values-Union) within the CDU, which opposes Merkel from within her own party. This was a clear attempt to weaken Merkelism, showing deep divisions within the party just a year before the next chancellor will be elected in Germany.
The truth is that without the AfD votes, Kemmerich could not have formed a government, and since neither the CDU, the SPD, nor the Greens were presenting candidates, the only option they had, if they did not want to get involved with the AfD, was to vote for Ramelow (or abstain). For his part, Kemmerich was undoubtedly aware that his candidacy could attract the 22 AfD votes and risk being tainted by fascist votes — and this is precisely what happened. But Kemmerich and the FDP were not the only ones betting on this possibility; the CDU did too, as it preferred to support a candidate with 5% of the votes — one that was more likely to attract the AfD’s votes than Die Linke — when it could have quietly abstained, as it did in the two previous elections in the precinct. In other words, the CDU preferred to run the risk of an alliance with the AfD rather than allow a leftist force to continue on in the government.
It is clear that the will of the people was completely reversed with the election of Kemmerich: a candidate who won only 5% of the votes won the governorship, while the clear winner in the last election, Bodo Ramelow, was expelled from the government overnight. Though Kemmerich has already resigned after the backlash his election received, the CDU and the FDP achieved what they wanted in this election: to prevent the center-left alliance of Die Linke, the SDP, and the Greens from keeping power, even if this means accepting the support of fascists.
In his post-election statement, Kemmerich declared that those who voted for him are “determined enemies of anything that had the smell of fascism.” He added: “I am an anti-AfD, an anti-Hocke.” This is a reference to Bjön Höcke, who is the AfD leader in Thuringia and the representative of the most radicalized AfD line, the so-called “Die Flüge” (“the Wing”). Höcke’s xenophobic and anti-immigrant stance is based on a racist discourse that is more related to Nazi views of biology than it is to “modern” cultural variants of such bigotry. He is a defender of conservative Catholic values and does not deprive himself of any opportunity to make homophobic statements. He is also a constant critic of the role of the Holocaust in German public memory and a committed anti-Semite. Due to his closeness to neo-Nazi extremist groups and his justifications of racial violence, in 2019, a German court ruled that he is definitively a fascist. Even the AfD itself has admonished him for going too far, threatening him with expulsion from the party several times. But the elections in Thuringia and the ascent of the AfD lends legitimacy to the public face of the party; Höcke and the politics he espouses are the big winners in this situation.
Since its creation in 2014, though the AfD has not seen a huge leap in its numbers, it managed to seat no fewer than 89 representatives in the Federal Parliament (the Bundestag) in 2018. This is particularly significant given that no extreme right-wing party has managed to reach the Bundestag since the end of the Second World War. The AfD has become the third largest national political force and the main opposition to the Grand Coalition (GroKo) between the CDU and the SPD. But this growing success was also accompanied by a political “Brandmauer” around it, an agreement by all political parties to not ally with right-wing parties to not only isolate AfD from political decisions, but also to prevent the normalization of its discourse and demands.
This strategy seems to have been defeated in the Thuringian elections last week. AfD is a national force that before the elections had already done much to transform the sober style of German parliamentary debate with its histrionics and constant challenges to what it considers the dictatorship of “political correctness.” It spreads a xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-immigration, Holocaust-minimizing, and climate change-denying agenda. Since the election, however, the AfD has now also achieved something else: by successfully aligning with two establishment parties, it has been accepted as another party in German politics.
At the moment, it is still unclear where the situation in Thuringia will go from here. Kemmerich has resigned, but he will remain the de facto governor until a new premier is elected. Die Linke, the Greens, and the SDP have all called for new elections, but it is unclear when that election will be held. The CDU has now joined this call for the sake of “political legitimacy.” Nevertheless, both the CDU and the FDP already announced that they would not vote for Ramelow in a new election.
Meanwhile, nationally, the elections have resulted in a further polarization in German political life. Die Linke has surged in support, and the AfD has also gained a small bump in recent reports. In a new poll released by German news agency DPA, 48% percent of Germans expect the AfD to be a part of the national government by 2030, breaking decades-long taboos surrounding far-right participation in the government. 59% of those surveyed said that they vehemently oppose the rise of the AfD and have lost faith in Germany’s political establishment as a result of the scandal in Thuringia.
This is a mess no one knows how to get out of. One thing is clear, however: the events in Thuringia have only served to make the extreme right stronger. The AfD can now claim to have overthrown a left-wing governor, and it has exposed problems within the political landscape: the opportunism of the FDP liberals, the electoral weakness of the Social Democrats, and the right-wing division within Christian democracy. This regional election has pointed to deep divides within the German political sphere that are reaching a breaking point.
Beyond this, however, the events in Thuringia highlight the limitations of bourgeois democracy and the hypocrisy of the “liberal” political establishment. Increasingly, both liberals and conservatives prefer to run the risk of making a pact with fascists and the far right rather than support the left, however moderate it may be. This should come as no surprise, as their economic and political interests will always be more in line with the far right — which aims to preserve capitalism — than they are with anyone who considers themselves a socialist.
This encroachment by the far right is not exclusive to Germany, but seems to be the case almost everywhere. For example, in Brazil, the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and the center-left Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) paved the way for the arrival of Bolsonaro in 2018 with their persecution of the PT via an institutional coup in 2016. We even see something similar to this today in the United States within the Democratic Party: the establishment is doing everything it can to block the nomination of a social democrat like Bernie Sanders in its own party. In the same way, today Germany shows, once again, that the road to fascism is paved by the political allies of the bourgeoisie.
A version of this article was first published on La Izquierda Diario.