Europe Politics

Germany's far-right AfD becomes kingmaker in regional election, prompting shockwaves in Berlin

Key Points
  • The AfD is known to be a nationalist, euroskeptic party that rose to prominence in 2013 amid a wave of populist parties in Europe and opposition to euro zone bailouts.
  • Political analysts say the reverberations of the Thuringia election will be felt in Merkel's fragile governing coalition of the CDU and Social Democrats (SPD).
Demonstrators protest in front of the federal office of the FDP against the behavior of the FDP in the election of the parliamentary group and state chairman of the FDP in Thuringia as Minister President of the state of Thuringia.
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The small German state of Thuringia has caused a political uproar in Berlin after the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party helped to elect the state's new premier.

Thomas Kemmerich from the liberal, pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), is the first mainstream German politician to have been elected with the help of the controversial, anti-immigration AfD party.

The election of Kemmerich was itself a surprise as Bodo Ramelow, of the leftwing Die Linke party, had won Thuringia's state election in October and was expected to form a minority government in the region on Wednesday.

However, the AfD party joined forces with the Christian Democratic Union (the CDU, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel) to back and elect Kemmerich. The election breaks a taboo among the country's mainstream parties, including the CDU and FDP, to ostracize the AfD.

Describing it as a "political earthquake," ING Germany's Chief Economist Carsten Brzeski said "the shockwaves of today's events have already reached Berlin and are unlikely to ebb away quickly ... In our view, today's events do not represent a shift to the right but illustrate that German politics have become more fluid."

The AfD is known to be a nationalist, euroskeptic party that rose to prominence in 2013 amid a wave of populist parties in Europe and opposition to euro zone bailouts.

In latter years, however, the party has shifted its campaign focus to an anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance and has grown in popularity, its position chiming with some German voters disenchanted with Merkel's decision to accept over a million migrants around 2015. Its rising popularity with voters has horrified many in Germany who fear a return to fascism. Center-right parties like the CDU have also lost voters to the AfD.

Shockwaves

Political analysts say the reverberations of the Thuringia election will be felt in Merkel's fragile governing coalition of the CDU and Social Democrats (SPD).

"Today's controversial election of a new minister president in the East German state of Thuringia will refuel tensions within the coalition and in Merkel's party," Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Wednesday.

"The move by the Thuringian CDU is a balancing act, but it will be perceived as a provocation in Berlin," he said.

"In essence, the Thuringian CDU today chose silent cooperation with the AfD over the acceptance of a post-communist, if moderate incumbent. Already, leftist politicians have reacted by drawing parallels to the enabling role the German center-right played during the rise of the fascist dictatorship in the early 1930s," Nickel added.

Thuringia, with just over 2 million inhabitants, was one of the first federal states where Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi party) gained power after an election in 1929.

'A bad day for Germany'

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Thuringia's main cities Wednesday evening to protest the election of Kemmerich, with the help of the AfD, and the hashtag #Dammbruch ("Dam burst") was trending on Twitter, reflecting shock among the public that mainstream parties had broken the pact.

Thuringia's new state premier Kemmerich himself told the regional parliament that he was against fascism amid outcry from his own party. He also ruled out forming any governing alliance with the AfD.

Thuringian CDU leader Mike Mohring tried to distance himself from the AfD too, saying his part was not responsible for the voting behavior of other parties, like the AfD. Meanwhile, the co-chairman of leftist Die Linke party, Bernd Riexinger, described the election of Kemmerich as a "taboo breach."

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the national CDU party, called for new elections and said what had happened was "a bad day for Thuringia, a bad day for Germany."

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