Politician seeks far-right backing for premiership, stuns Germany

February 06, 2020

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Erfurt (Germany): Protesters demonstrate outside Thuringia’s state parliament building after the vote on Wednesday. The placard, laced with sarcasm, reads “Better to rule with fascists than not to rule. Free Democratic Party!”—AFP
Erfurt (Germany): Protesters demonstrate outside Thuringia’s state parliament building after the vote on Wednesday. The placard, laced with sarcasm, reads “Better to rule with fascists than not to rule. Free Democratic Party!”—AFP

FRANKFURT: The tiny central state of Thuringia broke a German political taboo on Wednesday after a candidate for the regional premiership was heaved into office with help from the far right for the first time ever, prompting a storm of outrage.

Thomas Kemmerich, a politician from the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), scored 45 votes thanks to support from the anti-immigrant AfD party, leapfrogging incumbent Bodo Ramelow of the Left party by one vote.

“This is the first time in the history of modern Germany that a state premier has been elected with AfD votes,” political scientist Andre Brodocz told broadcaster MDR.

The AfD’s own candidate received zero votes, indicating the party’s state legislators aligned as a bloc behind Kemmerich.

While the vote was secret, the liberal candidate must also have enjoyed support from lawmakers belonging to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU, as well as his FDP stablemates.

Media were quick to describe the event as a “political earthquake”, as mainstream parties had so far refused to countenance working with anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-EU AfD at any level.

Addressing the local parliament in Erfurt, Kemmerich sought to assuage concerns by insisting he would stick to a pre-election pledge not to work with the AfD.

“You have in me a bitter opponent of anything that even hints at radicalism, from the right or left, or fascism,” he said, to jeers from local MPs and shouts of “Hypocrite!” and “Charlatan!”.

People from across the political spectrum quickly condemned the tacit cooperation between CDU, FDP and AfD in social media posts.

“Every decent liberal should be ashamed that an FDP man has been elected with votes from the AfD,” tweeted Hubertus Heil, federal labour minister from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Voices within the FDP were divided, with board member Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann tweeting that the “unacceptable and unbearable” alliance made it a “bad day for me as a liberal”.

But the party’s deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki welcomed Kemmerich’s election as state premier.

AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily the vote showed there was “less distance” between the CDU, FDP and AfD than other parties, showing the movement was part of a “middle class” majority.

It would be “understandable” if the AfD demanded ministerial jobs in Kemmerich’s government, he added.

Thuringia belongs to Germany’s former communist east, where rejection of the far right has not taken such deep roots as in the west in the decades since the country’s 1990 reunification.

As in other eastern states, the autumn 2019 election brought a surge there for the AfD.

But in light of the firewall towards the far right, incumbent state premier Ramelow was widely tipped to be reelected.

Despite the 2019 regional election robbing his coalition of absolute control in the state parliament, most observers had expected Ramelow, a popular local politician, to win a simple majority.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2020