Political Fallout in Germany Intensifies Over Far-Right Pact

(Bloomberg) -- The fallout over a controversial alignment of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the right-wing AfD now shifts to Berlin after the politician at the center of the crisis became the first victim.

Just one day after a shock vote in Thuringia sparked outrage, the Free Democrats’ Thomas Kemmerich said he will step down as the state’s premier and seek new elections. Christian Lindner, his party’s chairman, is in the firing line and called an emergency leadership meeting on Friday in the German capital to decide whether he should remain in charge.

Political Fallout in Germany Intensifies Over Far-Right Pact

CDU leadership will also convene on Friday to determine a way forward after the local state chapter defied orders from Berlin. That heaps pressure on Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was already struggling to sustain her position as Merkel’s heir.

German politics was upended on Wednesday when for the first time a state premier was appointed with the far right’s help. The surprise move involved the CDU and the Free Democrats deposing the incumbent leader in the state of Thuringia with the backing of the Alternative for Germany party. The move broke a taboo among established parties, which had all vowed not to work with the AfD.

“There can be no question, Thuringia needs a new beginning,” Paul Ziemiak, general secretary of the Christian Democrats, told reporters Thursday in Berlin. “For the CDU, this new beginning can only take place on the basis of the decisions of our party conference.”

The turmoil reflects the tense state of German politics as the AfD makes inroads and Merkel prepares to retire from politics at the end of her term in 2021 at the latest. During a state visit to South Africa, Merkel weighed in, calling the action of her party’s state chapter “unforgivable” and said it should be reversed.

In a five-minute press conference in Thuringia’s capital of Erfurt, Kemmerich reiterated that his party won’t cooperate with the AfD, even after the anti-immigration party helped him into office. The FDP barely garnered enough votes to enter the state legislature and needed the unprecedented alliance to narrowly beat Bodo Ramelow from the Left party.

“We want to hold a new election to remove the stain of the AfD’s support,” Kemmerich said. Asked whether he’d made a mistake by accepting the post, he responded: “No.”

While Kemmerich’s move opens the door to elections, the motion would still need to find support in parliament, where the FDP only has five members in the fragmented 90-seat body. The Left has the most seats with 29, and the AfD is second with 22.

Political Fallout in Germany Intensifies Over Far-Right Pact

Merkel’s coalition partners scheduled a crisis meeting for Saturday to talk about the consequences of the events in Thuringia. The issue provides an opening for the Social Democrats, the reluctant junior partner, to gain political capital.

“The CDU leader must show that she has her party under control,” SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil told Spiegel. If she can’t control the Thuringian branch, then “she’s a queen without a country. We’ll hold her to that standard.”

The AfD, which switched support from its own candidate to back Kemmerich, sent shockwaves across the political spectrum and sent thousands of protesters onto the streets in Erfurt and in cites including Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.

Historical Echoes

Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD’s controversial state leader, was the mastermind behind the shock move. A notorious figure from the hard-right nationalist wing, he has made headlines by assailing Germany’s guilt complex, referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame.” A German court ruled in September that he could be legally called a “fascist.”

In a post on Twitter after losing the vote, Ramelow alluded to the fact that the Nazis were first part of a state government in Thuringia, with the success there used as a model for their national power grab. The post included a photo of Hoecke congratulating Kemmerich below a picture of Adolf Hitler shaking hands with then President Paul von Hindenburg.

Thirty years after reunification, Thuringia -- like most of the former communist states -- still struggles with lower wages, an exodus of young people and the sense of being second-class to the more affluent West. The AfD has exploited these shortcomings in state elections in the region this fall.

The anti-establishment party, which has swept into national parliament and all 16 state assemblies in recent years, came in second place in Thuringia last October. Its inroads meant that Ramelow’s anti-capitalist Left no longer had a majority to lead a coalition with the SPD and the Greens.

The state of 2.2 million people borders Bavaria to its south and is home to some of Germany’s most valuable cultural heritage, including its literary capital in Weimar and Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German.

The emotion of the political rupture was evident after the vote. With Kemmerich receiving congratulations, Left’s caucus leader in Thuringia tossed a bouquet of flowers at his feet and walked off without shaking his hand.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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