Thuringia – a breakdown in the political system?

At the end of October 2019, voters in the east German state of Thuringia went to the polls to elect the new state government.  Three months later, politicians  reached an agreement on who was to be in the ruling coalition.  The agreement – a minority coalition composed of the Left Party, SPD and Green Party – was highly unusual and far from ideal.

The agreement illustrated a nationwide dilemma faced in Germany – how to respond to the electoral success of the far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). So far there  has been an uneasy consensus  that the established parties will not work  with the AfD.

In early February, this consensus, and the agreement for a minority coalition, was blown apart when CDU and FDP politicians broke ranks and voted with the AfD for an FDP Minister President.  This caused a national outcry and, after a few days, the resignation of the newly elected Minister President.   Now the future is unclear: Thuringia has no working government and no Minister President.

The challenge: AfD strength in the east

The rise of the AfD has posed severe problems for the established parties in Germany. Formed in 2013 as a eurosceptic party, the party has won seats in all of Germany’s 16 states, and in 2017 entered the national parliament as the third largest party.  But the party’s increasing extremism, especially in the east of the country, has caused alarm.

In October, the AfD came second in Thuringia with 23.4% of the vote, with the Left Party (Die Linke) coming first with 31%. The conservative CDU won under 22%, while the miserable  decline of the social democrats (SPD) in the east continued, with the party winning only 8.2 %.   Since there was no overall majority, a coalition government needed to be formed.  

Excluding the AfD from the coalition-building left two options: either an unlikely CDU/Left Party majority coalition, or a minority coalition – which is very unusual.  Although the popular  Left Party leader and Minister President in the last government, Bodo Ramelow, signalled his willingness to work with the CDU, this option was rejected by the CDU leadership.   The Left Party, SPD and Green Party, the parties which until the election had already been in a majority coalition government, reached an agreement to continue in a minority coalition. However, they would only have had 42 out of 90 seats (in contrast to the 50 the Left Party and CDU would have had).    

It was expected that the Left Party leader, Bodo Ramelow, would be re-elected as Minister President and that the minority government would start its work. But, against national policy, CDU and FDP politicians voted with the AfD for a different candidate.

Is a ‘cordon sanitaire’ justified?

The ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy of excluding the AfD raises serious questions. It necessitates coalitions which may prove to be extremely unstable – some commentators have even likened the instability  of coalitions to the Weimar Republic.  Thuringia is not the only case in point. After the September 2019 election in Saxony, in which the AfD also came in second place with 27.5%, a CDU-SPD-Green coalition was formed: joint AfD leader Jörg Meuthen remarked that the coalitions were “more fragile than they had ever been”. 

Further, excluding the AfD supports the party’s identity as a victim denied representation by the corrupt establishment and could further alienate voters who tend to distrust the political system (and who are most likely to be attracted to the AfD). The victim card is played often by the AfD: in 2018, for example, when former SPD leader Martin Schulz made an impassioned speech against the AfD in parliament following anti-foreigner violence in the town of Chemnitz, the AfD’s parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland argued that the other parties in the Bundestag “try to criminalise the opposition by building up a kind of popular front against the AfD.”  In 2017, a rule change  denied an AfD MP the opportunity to make the first speech in the new Bundestag; the change was likened by the AfD to the suppression of free speech by the Nazis. Similar accusations were made last November when the other parties voted the chair of the Justice Committee off the committee after a series of highly offensive tweets.

Lastly, in the long run, it may be hard to enforce this policy, as the breakaway vote in Thuringia has shown.  The CDU and the SPD party leaderships have had to reiterate the no-cooperation policy several times. Indeed, following the election in Thuringia, local CDU members called on the party leadership to talk to “all parties”, meaning the AfD too.

Yet, excluding the AfD from governments has blocked right-extremists from power, and avoided the normalisation of far-right populism in power.  This can be contrasted with Austria, for example, where the FPÖ – which has a far-right, xenophobic agenda – was in a coalition government with the conservative ÖVP from 2017 until the autumn of 2019. It was also in coalition in state and city governments, and is therefore recognised as a legitimate coalition party. 

Thuringia’s regional AfD leader, Björn Höcke, highlights the gravity of the problem. A former teacher and far-right demagogue, loved by some and loathed by many, Höcke is leader of Der Flügel (the Wing), a radical group within the party which has recently consolidated its power on the executive and which counts key party figures amongst its friends.   Höcke provoked outrage in January 2017 when he called the national Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and called for a “180 degree reversal on the politics of remembrance”. He has been investigated by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and in September, a month before the state election, a judge ruled that he could legally be called a fascist.   In the summer of 2019, Höcke gave a speech in which he implied that, as leader of the Flügel, he was leader of the party; this earned a sharp rebuke from more than 100 AfD politicians from all over Germany, including from the Alternative Mitte, a set of regional AfD groupings which oppose the Flügel. The statement from the politicians rejected Höcke’s “excessive personality cult” – a coded accusation of ambitions of dictatorship.

Thuringia politicians face a rocky road. On the one hand, cooperation with the far-right is unacceptable; on the other, the AfD represents over 20% of voters in the east of the country. The question of how to respond to the party’s success is still unclear; and Thuringia is unlikely to be the last state to face this problem.

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