Last week, Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) was elected Prime Minister of the east German federal state of Thuringia in what constituted a surprise to many political experts. Since then, events have been unfolding incredibly quickly, including, less than 24 hours after the election, the FDP parliamentary group wanting to initiate a dissolution of the state parliament and Kemmerich announcing his resignation from the office he has just been voted into. However, none of this can make up for the political damage that has been done. Even though formally, the election was unobjectionable, it was a deeply dark day for democracy: apart from the votes of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Kemmerich for his election obviously relied on the support of the right-wing populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD).
Anyone who saw the faces of the AfD’s representatives in the subsequent television interviews realised that the supposed gambit by the FDP and CDU in Thuringia – ousting the state’s former Prime Minister, Bodo Ramelow of the Left party – was a mistake. The right-wing populists around Bjoern Hoecke, speaker of the AfD’s parliamentary group, were unable to hide the looks of triumph in their faces. Indeed, it was them who initiated the events that took place during the third, decisive ballot, they evoked, some of them seemed to suggest.
A DISGUSTING CHARADE
It is nothing less than stupid when an FDP politician lets himself be led through the arena by the proverbial ring through the nose by the AfD. Pathetic, appalling, a breach of a taboo, a fall from grace, a disgusting charade – there’s been no shortage of descriptions of this kind since the election. What’s more, it cannot be ruled out that the AfD has planned the scenario out even further and is speculating that an effective government made up of the democratic parties will not come about in this way, instead leading to new elections that it might emerge from strengthened. The very same scenario, on the other hand, may prove to be the last straw in Thuringia that can ensure a stable democratic majority. The spontaneous street protests against the events that took place in Erfurt are reason for hope.
In any case, the fact that things got this far constitutes a failure on the part of the political actors involved: Kemmerich and the FDP’s leader, Christian Lindner, attempted to somewhat gloss over the story on the night of the election, arguing that they weren’t after all able to cherry-pick the votes with which results are achieved. This is the second time Lindner has been responsible for causing a government crisis. How did he put it again the first time? It is better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly? Agreed.
A DEMOCRATIC VOTE, BUT…
On the same evening, the leader of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had to admit during an interview with the heute-journal television programme that she did not have sufficient control over the CDU’s Thuringia leader, Mike Mohring. He behaved differently than she had recommended. He got involved in the manoeuvre with the excuse that his faction, being presented with a “centre candidate” in the third ballot, had made a decision for Kemmerich. The CDU had abstained in the previous two votes when Kemmerich wasn’t on the ballot. Abstention would also have been the correct option in the third ballot. Who can be surprised when such actions increase political disaffection among the public?
A similar fall from grace happened in Thuringia almost exactly 90 years ago. At that time, social democrats had decisively won the state elections with 32.3 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the German People’s Party (DVP), German National People’s Party (DNVP) and others formed a government with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). It was the first government in Germany in which the NSDAP participated. What happened in the following years is well documented. The fact that then, as now, everything happened in a democratic fashion, doesn’t help. Numerous despots, including Adolf Hitler, were initially elected at the ballot.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
All the dread put aside – what can we learn from this episode? How can we prevent a “next time”? It is obvious that many voters in Thuringia regard the AfD as an attractive option. The proposals offered by the democratic parties are obviously less convincing to them. It is imperative to find the reasons behind this.
Political credibility, straightforwardness, attitude and transparency are more essential than ever. Politicians must develop a vision of the future that people can trust. This is particularly important during large social upheavals such as digitization or the energy transition that currently takes place in Germany. It’s true that the challenges are huge. But there are also many opportunities. (We) politicians must be able to provide people with security and still demonstrate to them that change represents progress. We must be able to design a model for society that is courageous, not characterised by fear.
We have to rebuild a sense of community, starting with the municipalities. Not least, this will require a strong social democracy that’s able to unite everyone behind it. Let us stand together against anti-democratic demagogues. Political skirmishes with fatal consequences really are inappropriate.