Jacob Stokes | Europe & Eurasia Fellow
On 5 February in the East-German state of Thuringia held a parliamentary vote to elect the state’s Minister-President, the result of which caused a political earthquake in Germany. It is a vote that not only highlights the floundering nature of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s once-reliable Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but emphasises the growing instability of German politics itself.
Four months before the February vote, Thuringia held its state election. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with six different parties securing seats in the Landtag (Parliament). The previously ruling Red-Red-Green Coalition—a coalition between Die Linke (The Left), the Social-Democratic Party (SPD), and the Greens—were four seats short of achieving a majority in the legislature.
The results from the 2019 state election made it difficult for any party to create a functioning coalition government.
The CDU—which had underperformed—ruled out cooperating with the Coalition, and all parties refused to work with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The sixth party, the centre-right Free Democratic Party (FDP), led by Thomas Kemmerich, was overlooked during coalition talks as the party secured only five seats out of a possible 90, the lowest of any party in the Landtag.
As coalition talks broke down, Parliament held a February ballot whereby each member of the Landtag voted on Thuringia’s next Minister-President. Bodo Ramelow, leader of the Red-Red-Green Coalition, was widely expected to win and govern with a minority government. However, the surprising victor was FDP leader Thomas Kemmerich, despite polling just 5 per cent at the October election.
Kemmerich, a virtual unknown in German politics, came to power thanks to votes from the AfD. It was the first time since the Second World War that a German politician had assumed a high-ranking office position with support from a far-right party. It soon became apparent that the CDU had also thrown its support behind Kemmerich alongside the AfD, breaking an 80-year German taboo by cooperating with the far-right party.
Across Germany, both politicians and the public were outraged the CDU had voted in company with the AfD. CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, described it as “a bad day for Germany”, while Angel Merkel described the situation as “unforgivable”. Thousands of protestors demonstrated throughout Thuringia, while hundreds protested in front of FDP headquarters in Berlin. These protestations led Kemmerich to announce he was stepping down as Minister-President “effective immediately”.
The crisis in Thuringia has been a nightmare for Merkel and the CDU, kicking off a political domino effect of resignations and dismissals. The first dismissal occurred three days after the controversial vote with Merkel ousting CDU commissioner Christian Hirte, a key figure for the party in East Germany. Just four days later, Mike Mohring, head of the CDU in Thuringia stepped down from his position.
The biggest casualty of the Thuringia crisis was the resignation of Merkel’s planned successor, Kramp-Karrenbauer. Kramp-Karrenbauer had demanded that party leaders in Thuringia push to dissolve the state parliament and call for new elections; they refused, likely due to fears of bleeding further votes to the AfD. Lacking legitimacy and unable to impress her will on the party, Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned.
The events in Thuringia paint a bleak picture for the CDU and German politics. With Merkel currently without an heir to the throne, the political direction of the country appears up for grabs at next year’s federal election, especially with the ever-increasing influence and popularity of the AfD.
The AfD polled incredibly well at three of the four state elections in 2019, securing more seats than the CDU in Thuringia and Brandenburg, and picking up almost 30 per cent of the vote in Saxony. Worryingly for the other parties, the AfD was the most popular party amongst young voters at these elections. The AfD captured more votes in the 18-29 age range than any other party in both Thuringia and Saxony, and only one per cent less than the CDU in Brandenburg.
The CDU, on the other hand, is treading water. For them to have any chance of winning or even performing at the federal election, Merkel and the CDU must act promptly. Appointing the Chancellor’s successor would be a start, although even that is proving an arduous task. Merkel’s passive approach to politics must also leave with her. German centrism is dying, and such an approach only succeeds in bleeding the CDU of votes to left-wing and right-wing parties who are more willing to adopt concrete and proactive positions on controversial issues like immigration and public spending.
Whichever side of the political spectrum the CDU decides to fall on, it must do so with conviction and honesty as voters will respect and respond to this. Then again, anything is better than having the public believe you are secretly in bed with the far-right.
Jacob Stokes is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs