News Digest 28th February

Hamburg election

Some rare good news for the SPD came on Sunday, as the party won the election in Hamburg with 39.2%. The Greens came second with 24.2% and the CDU vote sank by nearly 5% to 11.2%. Early indications were that the AfD would fail to pass the 5% minimum to be elected to parliament, but they squeezed in with 5.3%, unlike the FDP, which won 4.9%

Hamburg election 23.02.2020

The election posed questions for both the SPD and CDU leaderships. For the SPD, the question was whether the success of mayor Peter Tschentscher, who, like his predecessor Olaf Scholz has pursued a moderate course, was the direction the party should take nationally; or whether the leftwards turn the national party has taken with the election of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans will bring about a revival of their fortunes. Currently the party is polling at about 14%.

The disastrous performance of the CDU was partly blamed on the Thurginian crisis (see below) and the debate over cooperation with the far-right AfD.

CDU leadership

Following Röttgen’s surprise announcement that he was joining the leadership race, two more candidates declared: Friedrich Merz and Armin Laschet. In another surprise annoucment, Jens Spahn, who ran last time and was tipped to run again, said he would not stand for leader, but as deputy to Laschet. A Deutsche Welle article in English on this can be found here.

Spahn’s announcement, as the Zeit pointed out, was surprising since Spahn had never spoken particularly well about Laschet; on the contrary, he was a Merz fan. But this is the point – Spahn talked about the ‘greatest crisis in CDU history’ at their joint press conference; together, they aim to bring about unity in the party by representing different voices. As the Zeit commented, ” ‘Together’ – after ‘middle’ – is the key word of their joint conference.” Following his team-up with Spahn, the Financial Times reported that Laschet is now in pole position to win the leadership election.

In his press interviews this week, Merz has denied that his intention is to shift the party to the right, arguing that the party must won back both liberal and conservative voters, as well as young people. However, as in the last leadership election in December 2018, Merz came under fire for his statements on right-wing extremism.

At the press conference announcing his candidature on Tuesday, Merz said that his focus in fighting right-wing extremism would be border control as well as right-wing crime organisations. The focus on shutting borders was seen as an attempt to win votes back from the AfD. The Frankfurter Rundschau reported the criticism that followed, including a tweet from the leader of the Left Party in parliament that, “Seehofer contributed to the rise of the AfD with such talk and then – rightly – crashed completely.” Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has made several attempts to win back voters from the AfD, including echoing the AfD’s statement that “Islam does not belong in Germany” and arguing that migration was “the mother of all problems.” Before the Bavarian state election in October 2018, Seehofer embroiled the coalition government in a long row about asylum seekers travelling on to Germany from other EU countries, a row which threatened the stability of the coalition.

Laschet said this week that he wants to fight for voters in the middle, not on the right; the Hamburg election, he argued, showed that the CDU had lost most voters to the SPD and Greens.

It was also announced that the date of the leadership election is to be brought forward, to April 25, when a special conference will elect the leader.

Thuringia

As soon as politicians in Thuringia agreed a compromise to provide a functioning government – a minority Left Party-SPD coalition with the re-election of Left party head Bodo Ramelow as Minister President, and a new election next year – a barrage of criticism was rained down on them, most notably by CDU leadership contender Friedrich Merz. The CDU has a national resolution not to cooperate either with AfD or the Left Party – but there has been heated debate about whether refusing to cooperate with the Left Party is reasonable. In his press conference, on Tuesday, Laschet argued that the greatest threat to democracy is from the right and that equating the far left with the extreme right is wrong, since the far left in Germany don’t murder people.

A Spiegel article on Saturday entitled ‘The self-destruction of the CDU’ argued that, “Parties that support German democracy and the German Republic must be able to work together. Parties that scorn democracy and the Republic must be excluded from this cooperation.” The difference is, the article argued, that the few Putin or dictatorship fans in the Left Party don’t run the party, while the few moderates in the AfD don’t run their party.

A Zeit article criticised Merz’s allocation of blame for the crisis, commenting that he did not blame, “Thomas Kemmerich, who let himself be elected Prime Minister with the votes of the AfD. Neither did he blame Mike Mohring (the CDU leader in Thuringia), who meandered between the Left Party and the AfD for months …. He did not even blame Björn Höcke (leader of the AfD in Thuringia), who … has been feasting on the chaos in the state parliament for weeks. ” Instead, he chose to blame the leader of the Left Party, Bodo Ramelow, who should “have made his office available.”

This was an extraordinary position to take, since Ramelow’s party won the most votes in the election in October, and had negotiated a minority government with the SPD and Greens.

The Thuringia crisis, as well as the Hamburg election, were focal points for an escalating argument within the governing coalition. SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil has criticised the CDU for failing to prevent theThuringia CDU from cooperating with the AfD, and gave the opinion that the CDU’s poor showing in Hamburg was a result of that; CDU Chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has retaliated by accusing Klingbeil of running a dirty campaign against the CDU.

Heiko Mass: Idlib attacks are war crimes

Germany’s Foreign Mister, Heiko Mass, this week spoke at the UN Security Council. he said that indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Idlib by Russia and the Syrian government are war crimes. He called on those governments to fulfil their responsibilities to protect civilians, whose suffering is becoming harder and harder to put into words, and made clear that carrying out counter-terrorism measures does not absolve anyone from respecting international humanitarian law.

Right-extremism: AfD to blame for attacks, says poll

A Bild poll on Sunday found that 60% believe that the AfD bear some responsibility for the shootings in two Hanau bars last week, which were carried out by a right-extremist. The AfD have been accused of encouraging hatred and violence with their rhetoric; and the Taggespiegel reported on the findings of a survey of language used by the AfD, which concluded that leader Alexander Gauland’s language is the “badly disguised jargon of gangsters.”

Carnival attack

On Monday evening, as people were celebrating carnival in Volkmarsen in Hesse (the same state as last week’s shisha bar murders in Hanau), a man drove his car into the crowd, injuring over 70 people, including children. Although the internet was full of false rumours and conspiracy theories, regional TV reported that the motive for the attack remains unclear.

Corona virus

Until this week, there had been very few cases of corona virus reported in Germany, but following people returning to Germany after holidays, especially in Italy, fears moved up a gear. Stern reported that Italy had reported 322 cases and 10 deaths; and after a man fell ill wit the virus in Erkelenz in North-Rhine Westphalia, the local authority shut kindergartens and schools. Die Welt reported that there are three infection-clusters in the country: Heinsberg in North-Rhine Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg und Munich. Currently there are only around 60 confirmed cases, but around 1,000 people in Heinsberg were asked to stay in quarantine at home. The head of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank said that the spread of the virus represents an additional threat to Germany’s economy.

The government announced measures to prevent and track the spread of the virus including ‘disembarkation cards’ to be filled in by cross-border travellers. On Friday, a task force met to discuss further measures.

Assisted suicide

On Wednesday, the Federal Constitutional Court lifted the ban on assisted suicide. In 2015, parliament had passed a law which prohibited assisted suicide, meaning that terminally ill people had started to travel to Switzerland or the Netherlands to end their lives; the court ruled this week that the law, incorporated into paragraph 217 of the criminal code, was incompatible with the constitution. This means that doctors will be able to provide patients with lethal drugs, as had been possible before the 2015 law.

Will Scholz take his foot off the debt brake?

It was reported this week that Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is considering suspending the debt brake that has been in existince since 2009; the brake means that federal government can only borrow a maximum of 0.35 percent of gross domestic product (currently 6.6 billion euros). The idea is that some local authorities with high debt levels would therefore be freer to invest in public services. According to the Spiegel, three states with municipalities with high debt would benefit: North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and the Saarland – and Spiegel has reported that Hesse may also benefit. This policy however, would mean a chance in the constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority in parliament; and while Scholz may get the support of his party, the SPD, it is doubtful whether he would get the support of their coalition partner, Merkel’s CDU.

This week in Berlin

Parliament was not sitting this week, but announcements for new laws and regulations and for laws coming into force this week included:

A new immigration law aimed at encouraging skilled workers to come to Germany will come into effect on 1st March

Information about help for victims of terror attacks; a special Victims’ Office was set up in April.

The new law making a measles vaccination for children mandatory will come into force on 1st March.

What’s coming up

2nd – 6th March

Next sitting week for Parliament. Topics for debate include Afghanistan, distance working, the phasing out of coal, renewable energy, natural resources, old age policy and the basic pension, conversion therapy and election of committees ( can be controversial, since AfD proposals for committee members may be voted down by other politicians).

4th March

Planned election of Minister President in Thuringia

25th April

CDU leadership election

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