The fear of collaboration by the so-called mainstream democratic parties with the far-right in Germany has been realised in the first such incident in post-war times.
To contextualise the international headlines, it is worth looking back at the October 2019 state election outcomes in Thuringia.
Thuringia was the last of three eastern states in Germany to hold state elections in 2019. In line with the outcomes in other states, the AfD, a far-right party — which has been referred to as being “in the process of becoming a fascist party” — won 23.4% of the vote, a rise of 12.8% from the 2014 elections.
Die Linke (the leftist, socialist party) won the majority of votes with 31%.The liberal, pro-small-business party Free Democrats (FDP) won just 5% of the vote, barely scraping into the parliament.
From 2014–19, Thuringia’s state government was a red-red-green coalition government — made up of Die Linke, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens — with Die Linke holding the State Premier position for the first time ever in any government.
However, on February 5, in a vote to elect the leader of the government, the FDP’s Thomas Kemmerich beat Die Linke's candidate Bodo Ramelow by 45 votes to 44 — thanks to support from far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) — sending shockwaves throughout the country.
Rise of far right
The AfD’s vote and influence have been rising across Germany over the past four years and their electoral success in Thuringia was anticipated and actively responded to by civil society and with mass mobilisations.
New anti-racist alliances have been forming since 2015–16 and old anti-fascist groups have been reignited. Thus, there was a sense of having averted a greater crisis, once the electoral gains of the far-right were announced.
In the lead up to and immediately after the eastern states’ elections, the movements started putting public pressure on the mainstream democratic parties not to collaborate with the AfD for political expediency.
After the October 2019 elections, no coalition majority existed for any prior constellation excluding the AfD.
As a result, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) openly discussed the possibility of forming a government involving the AfD, and received support at the state level and criticism at the federal level from within their own party for this.
At the same time, Thuringia’s state premier, Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow (who served from 2014–19), appeared to be working towards a minority red-red-green coalition government, offering thematic compromises to the FDP for their support. FDP is a liberal democratic, pro-small-business party that barely made it into state parliament due to the 5% vote rule.
On February 5, only two candidates stood for election as state premier — a position elected by members of the state parliament. The election rules stipulate that there are two rounds of voting. However, if no candidate wins an absolute majority, a third round is held and the candidate with the highest vote wins.
Any member of the parliament can nominate to stand for election in each round. In the first two rounds, the choice was between Ramelow and the AfD’s Christoph Kindervater. No absolute majority was reached in either round.
In the third round, the FDP’s Thomas Kemmerich entered the race, as a so-called centre candidate. In the election, none of the AfD MPs voted for their own candidate. Instead, the faction jointly voted for the FDP candidate, who consequently won the race by one vote.
The head of the AfD’s far-right wing (der Flügel), Björn Höcke, was among the first to congratulate the new state premier.
Since then, public outrage has soared, protests have been organised and crisis meetings of all parties held.
A march on Thuringia has been called for February 15 to demand no collaboration with the AfD and that the AfD be excluded from any democratic platforms and decision-making processes. More than 30,000 protesters are expected to participate.
Within 24 hours of the election, Kemmerich had announced his resignation as premier and within 72 hours it was given effect.
The situation in Thuringia illustrates a number of dangerous developments. Initially, it is clear that the liberal conservative parties like CDU and FDP are willing to collaborate with the far-right if it suits their interests. This is what has been referred to by the movement as opening the flood gates for fascism.
Historically, the same occurred in Thuringia in 1930, when conservative parties decided to collaborate at the state government level with Adolph Hitler’s fascist Nazi Party. Such collaboration paves the way for the AfD to be seen as a legitimate party whilst shifting the political consensus further to the right.
Hitler’s quote from February 2, 1930, has been confirmed again in 2020: “We achieved our largest success in Thuringia. There we truly are the determining party nowadays. […] The parties in Thuringia, the ones having formed government so far, are no longer able to achieve a majority without us.”
This willingness to collaborate is born out of the crisis of the conservative parties, in particular the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU). A section of the party aims to reclaim AfD voters by moving further to the right. To achieve this, they formed an organisation called Werteunion (Union of Values) in early 2017, aiming to influence party policy in a right-wing, conservative direction.
At the same time, the CDU’s state party bodies are formally independent, so it may not be possible for the CDU federally to continue to maintain control over policy and process.
Nationally, the CDU has a clearly-stated position to not enter into coalitions or to collaborate with the AfD. CDU leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to respond to the events in Thuringia, noting that the election of Kemmerich was “indefensible” and that the outcome of the process had to be reversed.
Another dangerous development is the tactical manoeuvring capacity of the AfD, as demonstrated by their strategic luring of the FDP. The outcome is a weakened FDP that appears to have been taken for a ride, but also a strengthening of the AfD as a clever political player, able to exploit the situation.
Others have suggested that the FPD simply bet on the wrong horse, albeit consciously.
In the aftermath of Kemmerich’s resignation, a new state premier needs to be elected. The AfD has already announced that they will now vote for Ramelow to ensure he cannot accept the position. However, this would only be the case if Ramelow does not win sufficient votes from other parties in his own right.
Should it come to this, it is possible that completely new elections of the state parliament would need to be held.
[Sibylle Kaczorek is a member of the Socialist Alliance currently based in Berlin where she is active in Die Linke and Stand Up Against Racism!]