By Guilherme Becker
In the mountains of Thüringen, the lack of snow points to a mild winter. On the ground floor of its capital Erfurt, however, an avalanche has been spread and felt all over Germany. For the first time a far-right populist party has helped electing a governor. At first, it may not look so serious, but in Germany it has been considered a completely unexpected, surprising, and worrisome taboo breaking. A blast that is hurting the political spectrum nation-wide.
What a time to be in Erfurt, from a journalistic point of view. When I started my internship at Thüringen Allgemeine, I could not imagine that I would live in such a vivid and turbulent period. Not at all. As I am currently working for the biggest newspaper of the state, in its capital city, I would like to explain what went on and what might go on regarding the state parliament leader election, its effects and the great repercussion that led even chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to respond directly from South Africa on February 6th.
Some weeks ago I spent the whole Friday (31.01) hanging out, watching sessions, interviews and keeping my eyes close to the work of the reporters at Thüringen Parliament. It is a kind of experience that fits really well into a journalist and Euroculture student’s life. I even got time for a joke when walking through the corridor reserved for politicians from far-right populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany), well known for its xenophobic, racist and anti-immigration policies. “Am I allowed to be here? You know, I am a foreigner…”, I asked a journalist. He laughed and promptly joked back: “Yes, true, but you have German blood… So don’t worry…” We all laughed.
The time for jokes ended soon after, precisely on Wednesday (05.02), when the election of the new Thüringen governor was about to happen. The predictions and expectations were all set for the reelection of leftist Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke). But then the most unlikely scenario led to the election of centrist-liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP), at the last minute. Unexpectedly, instead of voting for their own candidate, AfD politicians decided to support Kemmerich to defeat the left. That is not the only problem: CDU (conservative right-wing) also supported Kemmerich, which means that two traditionally moderate parties made an unpredictable – if not unbelievable – “connection” with far-right extremists. A complete shock for Germany.
The impact was so huge that protests erupted – and keep happening – not only in Erfurt, but in many other cities of Germany. In the capital of Thüringen public transport was highly affected with delays not only on that Wednesday, but also on the following days given the demonstrations that followed the election.
Then on Thursday (06.02), only one day and 34 minutes after the election, the then newly-elected governor Kemmerich announced his resignation. On Monday (10.02) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned the CDU leadership. Therefore, she will not run next year in the national election as a possible substitute for Merkel. Some days earlier, Merkel had fired Christian Hirte, then minister for former East German states and secretary of state for the economy and energy. The reason? He greeted Kemmerich’s election on Twitter. One avalanche after another.
But why? Why so much anger and outrage over a vote? Well, let’s start from the beginning.
Thüringen state parliament is made up of six different parties: Die Linke (29 seats), followed by AfD (22), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party, conservative right, 21 seats), SPD (Social Democratic Party, socialist left-wing, 8), Grüne (environmentalist left-wing, 5) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party, liberal centre-right, also 5).
The governor election is indirect. Therefore it is necessary to have a majority through the seats to elect the governor – and then have a future majority on approval or rejection of projects and laws. National conservative and liberal centre-right headquarters parties, such as CDU and FDP, have always claimed and made clear that any “connection” – even informal alliances – with AfD was not allowed and should not happen at all. But it did happen. Usually AfD does not give and does not get any support to or from any party. This time, though, they decided to vote for FDP instead of voting for their own candidate. A completely unexpected political trick.
I see this scenario as a sign that two traditional parties, by accepting AfD support – even not being allowed to do that -, may be ignoring national premises and acting independently to come to power. The point is that the parties’ headquarters strongly condemned the election primarily arguing that Kemmerich should not have accepted the outcome of it. But he accepted, and only later on decided to resign after seeing the pressure and the protests coming from all sides. CDU’s more conservative wings have already flirted with the possibility of approaching AfD. For the most part, however, it has been avoided at all. Moreover, the result of this election might be a message that AfD is gradually getting closer to the “political game” and attempting to gain power under any circumstances.
The reason for the shock in Germany is obvious: parties, politicians and civil society from all political backgrounds abominate the possibility of the far-right approaching power. They voted for and elected politicians precisely to not do what they just have done. In their minds, it is something completely unacceptable – which I definitely agree with. When traditional right-wing and centre-right parties (such as the CDU and the FDP) accept AfD’s support, the ideology fades away, and the subsequent message is that what really matters is to come to power. A great offense, so to say.
Another great concern is that this “connection” among these parties leads people to question and consequently disregard even more the traditional parties, which in the last elections have significantly lost votes to extremists. As Kemmerich resigns and a new election is blinking, maybe CDU, for example, will connect to Die Linke, which, in my point of view, can make the electorate migrate even more to the extremists, namely AfD. In other words, it all means that there might be a huge loss of confidence in traditional parties and a vote of confidence for extremists.
The rise of AfD in Thüringen might have come along through many reasons, such as a strong conservatism, but also from some trauma left by DDR, and some subsequent economic reasons. Estearn German states have never got as industrialized as their Western neighbours, for instance. A study launched two weeks ago, for example, pointed out that only 22% of Eastern Germans are completely satisfied with democracy. The number is almost half of the 40% that said being satisfied with it in former Western German states.
At the same time, I see Die Linke as the current majority more as a result of the so-called utilitarian vote, in order to avoid a majority for AfD, although the region remains a traditionally working-class region, what might have led part of the electorate to migrate to the extremes, be right or left.
I do not think that I need to explain the concepts and the political agenda preached by AfD. It is actually more than only conservative. It is racist and xenophobic. One need only to google Björn Höcke and will certainly soon realise what I am talking about.
In the end, what happened last week in Erfurt was actually a strong and unprecedented taboo breaking. Germans are aware of the weight of their own history. They know that it was in Thüringen that the country had the first state government with the involvement of the Nazis. Incidentally, it was also in February, 80 years ago, that Hitler’s party gained substantial power. In Erfurt. In Thüringen. That was the first taboo breaking that later led Europe to the ruins, and Germany to collapse. Hopefully a majority of people are not in the mood to repeat some obvious and terrible mistakes.