BERLIN — Traditional political parties in Germany have agreed on one thing in recent years: That it is categorically unacceptable to cooperate with the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), formally or informally. Even as far-right parties entered government elsewhere in Europe, that taboo remained firmly in place in German politics.
Not anymore: In a historic first, center-right politicians used votes from the AfD to help oust a left-wing premier in the eastern German state of Thuringia on Wednesday. The decision has been met by outrage across the country and even a call for fresh elections; what’s more, it represents a symbolic breach of accepted political norms that could open the floodgates to more future collaboration with the AfD.
The vote Wednesday was expected to be a close but tight victory for Bodo Ramelow, the politician who had led Thuringia’s left-wing governing coalition since 2014. His Left party came in first in October’s state elections, winning 31 percent of the vote; it had sought to enter another coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens. The AfD, with far-right “wing” leader Björn Höcke at the helm, came in second in that election with 23.4 percent.
But rather than giving Ramelow and his coalition another five years in office, politicians from the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) united behind an FDP candidate for state premier, Thomas Kemmerich. (The FDP received only about 5 percent in October.)
He won the contest by a single vote, an outcome made possible only with the support of the AfD’s state lawmakers. Höcke, the AfD politician, came up to shake his hand once the results were announced; Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, state leader for the Left party, threw a congratulatory bouquet of flowers at Kemmerich’s feet in protest instead.
Others in her party responded with similar levels of outrage: “How far have we come that the FDP allows the state premier Kemmerich to be voted in with votes from the fascist Höcke and the AfD?” said Bernd Riexinger, co-chair of the Left party. “Breaking this taboo will have far-reaching consequences.”
The FDP has played with fire and set our entire country alight.
—CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak
Wednesday’s shock result underscores how difficult coalition-building has become—a trend across Europe but especially in eastern Germany, where the AfD consistently wins more than 20 percent of the vote. In some ways, it’s surprising the taboo wasn’t broken earlier this fall in either neighboring Saxony, where the AfD won an even higher 27.5 percent, or Brandenburg, where it landed 23.5 percent.
In both those states, which held elections last September, traditional party leaders managed to build three-party “Kenya” coalitions between the CDU, the SPD and the Greens (so named for their party colors black, red and green). The CDU ruled out the possibility of partnering with the AfD in both states, then actually followed through on the promise.
Saxon Premier Michael Kretschmer sharply criticized his fellow party members’ decision to rely on AfD votes Wednesday. “The CDU in Thuringia hasn’t accepted that it lost the election and there can’t be any cooperation with the AfD,” he tweeted shortly after the vote, saying it was “not a good day for Thuringia.”
National CDU leaders were even more critical. Paul Ziemiak, the party’s general secretary, said that a government supported by “Nazis like Höcke” would not be stable. Kemmerich should resign immediately and the state face fresh elections, he added: “The FDP has played with fire and set our entire country alight.”
And party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor—made clear that her CDU colleagues in Thuringia had failed to consult national leaders: They acted “expressly against the recommendations, demands and requests from the national party,” she said.
The AfD, for its part, has lauded the outcome as further proof the party has entered the political mainstream—a case it has sought to make in recent months as it made significant gains in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg.
Thuringia’s branch of the party is particularly right-wing; Höcke and others are under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence services for alleged extremist activities, and a German court ruled last year that Höcke could legally be referred to as a “fascist” based on his past statements and actions. That center-right parties were willing to depend on their votes despite Höcke’s extreme leanings perfectly fits the AfD’s narrative about its normalized place in the political landscape.
“Liberal-conservative majorities only exist with the AfD,” tweeted party spokesman Tino Chrupalla, adding that “we conservatives stand together” to uphold German democracy. And Alexander Gauland, a party co-leader, said that Wednesday proves “excluding the AfD is no longer an option.”
What happens next remains an open question: There will be extraordinary pressure on Kemmerich to resign, and on state parties to accept fresh elections. But whatever the result, Wednesday’s surprise outcome has provided a symbolic and significant victory for the AfD as it seeks to increase its political influence even further.