This article is the first part of a two-part series about German politics. The second part can be found here.
By Jonas Reichert
On Wednesday, the 5th of February the parliament of the tiny German federal state of Thuringia elected a new prime minister. That sounds at first as news that barely makes it to the national news feeds. But what happened shakes the foundations of Germany’s democratic order. The parliament did not re-elect the sitting prime minister Bodo Ramelow of the left-wing party Die Linke as widely expected, but the candidate of the neoliberal Freie Demokraten (FDP) Thomas Kemmerich. The scandal arises from the fact that he was elected not only with the votes of his party and the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) but also with the vote of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The Thuringian regional elections were held in October last year. Back then the CDU faced a heavy defeat and lost more than ten percentage points and got only 21.7 percent of the votes. The governing party Die Linke received meanwhile 31.0 percent. But as their coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the green party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen faced losses of 4.8 percent and 0.5 percent respectively, the coalition was left short of a majority. The winner of the election was the AfD, which gained 12.8 points to 23.4 percent. Also represented in the parliament is the FDP, which passed the five percent threshold only by 73 votes. Shortly following the election, negotiations between Die Linke and the CDU were discussed but were dismissed by the federal CDU. The coalition of Die Linke, SPD, and Die Grünen agreed then on the formation of a minority government, which was supposed to be elected on the 5th of February.
The election of a prime minister in the Thuringian parliament is conducted in three rounds. In the first two rounds, a candidate needs an absolute majority of 46 votes to be elected. In the third round, a simple majority is sufficient. It was expected that Bodo Ramelow would be elected in the third round with the votes of his coalition parties. The FDP had previously announced to nominate their candidate Thomas Kemmerich if the AfD would keep their candidate up for election. They did and in the final round, Bodo Ramelow received again 44 votes. But the AfD let their candidate down and elected together with the CDU and FDP Thomas Kemmerich with 45 votes as prime minister. The tiniest party in the parliament produced the prime minister, without having a coalition, a cabinet or a program. And he became the first state prime minister in Germany being elected with the votes of the far-right.
After the announcements, there was silence in the camber, before the AfD MPs were the first applauding. Thomas Kemmerich accepted the election and was congratulated by the MPs of his party, CDU and AfD. Bodo Ramelow left the building, the whip of Die Linke threw the obligatory bouquet to Kemmerich’s feet and the MPs of Die Linke, Die Grünen and the SPD expressed their outrage. Kemmerich directly started to take over government responsibility. He expressed his will to govern together with the CDU and SPD, the latter directly refused.
The AfD in Thuringia is even more extreme than the party as a whole. It is investigated by the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia. Its leader Björn Höcke has once called the holocaust monument in Berlin a ‘monument of dishonor’ and his ideology is considered völkisch nationalistic. The AfD is regularly raising attention by provocations and insults. They are xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic. They also deny human-made climate change and call for the protection of the German race claiming to be the only representative of the will of the people. All this makes them a dangerous extremist party.
The election is filled with more symbolism than even Dan Brown could imagine. In 1924 the liberal Deutsche Demokratische Partei (DDP, “German Democratic Party”), the national-liberal Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP, “German People’s Party”) and smaller conservative party joined forces in Thuringia and founded the electoral alliance Thüringer Ordnungsbund in order to overthrow the government led by the SPD and USPD. After the election, they formed a government supported by the Vereinigte Völkische Liste (VVL, “United Völkisch List”), which was set up as a front organization by the then forbidden NSDAP. In 1930, the state of Thuringia was the first in which the NSDAP was officially part of a government. And this is only the second prime minister from FDP. The other one was Reinhold Maier in Baden-Württemberg, who was supporting the Enabling Act as a member of the Reichstag in 1933. His time as a prime minister is mainly remembered for his efforts to help former Nazis to avoid prosecution. The fact that Kemmerich was elected as prime minister at the mercy of the AfD fits that picture.
After the public protest storm, which included thousands of people demonstrating on the streets all over Germany, Thomas Kemmerich announced the next day that he plans to resign, but he did not explain any timeframe. Only on Saturday, after the party leaders of both CDU and SPD called for his immediate resignation, he actually resigned and announced that he would waive all salaries of the position as a prime minister. But he will stay in office as an executive prime minister until a new one is elected. As he cannot appoint any ministers, the ministries will be managed by the state secretaries. He also cannot raise a question of confidence in parliament, which would be the easiest way to trigger new elections.
In an effort to resolve the crisis, Die Linke proposed to elect the former prime minister Christine Lieberknecht of the CDU as a caretaker prime minister, who would manage the state together with three ministers until a new election in the next 70 days. The CDU turned this proposal down, only to agree to another plan some days later. The new proposal includes the election of Mr Ramelow as a prime minister and a new election in April 2021. This would give time to pass a budget for 2021 and the longer time in office will benefit the MP’s pension entitlements. But the agreement is not yet accepted, as the federal CDU considers it a breach of its resolution not to cooperate with Die Linke.
The crisis is yet to resolve. The main loser is meanwhile already clear: the Christian Democrats. They would lose, according to polls, half of their vote in Thuringia. The quarrel about the crisis caused the party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to announce her resignation and triggered a messy leadership race. The other losers are the people of Thuringia, as no government means also no reforms, which would be needed. After all, the crisis has not seen any winners.
Cover photo: DIE LINKE. Thüringen
The cover photo shows Bodo Ramelow, leader of Die Linke in Thuringia and prime minister of Thuringia 2014-2020, 2020-onwards.
Jonas Reichert is an exchange student from Heidelberg in the south of Germany, where he does a degree in Physics. Besides his interests in life outside Earth, he can be found on most times in debating tournaments. In Sweden he tries to figure out how to bake and how to survive the winter.