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How the far-right is at the root of gloom in Germany’s ruling party

Bjorn Hoecke, leader of the AfD. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

The political crisis gripping Germany demonstrates the difficulty it has faced in dealing with the rise of the AfD party. JOHN KAMPFNER reports.

After enjoying the spectacle of Britain’s Brexit morass, it’s Germany’s turn to indulge in some political chaos of its own.

The resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she has come to be known, as the ruling party’s candidate for chancellor, has thrown open the battle to succeed Angela Merkel. It has further undermined the incumbent’s position. And it has demonstrated how terrifyingly difficult it is for mainstream political parties across Europe to deal with the incumbents on the far right.

The history in brief: regional elections at the end of October in Thuringia, one of five new states inherited from the former GDR, deprived all the main parties of the votes they needed to govern effectively. The previous prime minister, Bodo Ramelow, came from Die Linke, the Left party that had its roots in the former Communist SED. However, he was generally regarded as a moderate and was relatively popular. It was assumed that he would be appointed again, with the support from the Greens, SPD and even the CDU if necessary. Anyone but the AfD.

What happened next was extraordinary for a country that prides itself on a political culture that embraces consensus and shuns surprises. Unbeknown to the powers that be in Berlin, it was announced that an almost unheard of politician from the pro-business liberal party, the FDP, had won the vote in the regional parliament. Thomas Kemmerich, its leader, had sneaked in thanks to support from the far-right AfD and also from Merkel’s own CDU. The FDP had only just got over the 5% threshold of the vote needed to enter parliament. Nobody in Germany had taken office with a mandate as flimsy as this. And, crucially, nobody had taken office thanks to the blessing of the AfD.

The usually icily calm Merkel was furious, saying such a decision was “unforgivable”. AKK, who had taken over from her as party chairwoman in 2018 as a precursor to succeeding her as chancellor, ordered the local party to change its mind. It refused. Her authority was publicly undermined.

It has long been an article of faith among the CDU, FDP and the Social Democrats, the “people’s parties” endorsed by the Allies straight after the war, that they do not engage with extremist fringe groupings.

It was a taboo even to contemplate joining a coalition with the AfD, at national or regional level. The CDU bosses in Thuringia defied these strictures, conspiring with the AfD to push Kemmerich, someone they assumed they could control. In his campaign materials, Kemmerich had played on the idea that he was a reliable centrist and had no truck with extremists. One of his posters showed him standing with his back to the camera, the focus on his bald head. It was captioned: “Finally, a skinhead who paid attention in history classes.”

The AfD has surged in popularity, one of the most visible and frightening examples of the resurgence of the far-right across Europe. At the 2017 general election it became the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. It is represented in each of the 16 regional parliaments. In most regional elections over the last year or two it has come a close second, increasing its share of the vote sharply. Thuringia is a particularly controversial state. Just over half its voters seem to have given up on the old established parties, giving either the Linke or AfD their support.

The AfD is not homogenous. Some of its politicians could be described as just-about-respectable – although that is a bit of a stretch. Others are clearly not. Its boss in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, is the most extreme of the lot, regarded as the most divisive politician in the country. He has established a faction within the party called “the Wing”, which is seeking to push it to ever more radical positions.

Whenever he goes on stage or on television, he loves to whip up his audiences – those who love and those who loathe him. He has called for a “180-degree turnaround” in the way Germany looks at its past, and he regularly uses expressions like “degenerate” or “total victory” in his speeches – despite the fact that as a former history teacher he must know which dark chapter of German history he is conjuring up.

He calls the established parties “the old parties”, the term used to denigrate mainstream politicians during the Weimar Republic. In one infamous TV interview, he was asked by the moderator whether his use of terms with overt Nazi associations such as Lebensraum (“living space”) was entirely accidental. Höcke said politicians should express themselves “in original ways”. When his aide then tried to change the tenor of the discussion and the presenter refused, Höcke walked off the set.

Merkel has made it clear that, on her watch, the CDU will not engage with the AfD on any terms. The more intriguing and potentially alarming question is: what happens when she’s gone? She had hoped that by picking AKK, her party would stick to the same line on this and on many other issues (such as on economic policy and relations with Russia and China). But AKK never cut through. Her public appearances have been wooden. So concerned was Merkel at the loss of status of her handpicked successor that she appointed her also as defence minister in a bid to give her more profile. This partially succeeded and AKK saw off her critics at the CDU’s annual party conference in Leipzig. But it was a temporary reprieve. She was the one to carry the can for the Thuringia debacle.

The party will convene a special conference in a few months’ time to choose the man to take over from Merkel, in time for the general election in the second half of 2021. I say man, because the four candidates being spoken of are all men. That said, they are not identikit.

Armin Laschet, prime minister of the most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia, has been winning plaudits. With the loss of AKK, he would be seen as the continuity candidate. He has consistently defended Merkel’s refugee policy in the face of growing public disquiet.

Markus Söder runs Bavaria, a significant role given that the state has more autonomy than the others, and his party, the CSU, is a separate sister party to the CDU. He was quickest to condemn the Thuringia stitch-up. His political positioning is canny, given that Bavaria is known to be staunchly conservative.

The fly in the ointment is Friedrich Merz, the most right-wing and pro-free market of the candidates, who lost out to AKK during the 2018 leadership vote. His appointment would mark a break from Merkel’s consensual approach. While he might bring some AfD voters back into the fold, he would alienate others in the centre. Merz quit the Bundestag to take up a lucrative post at BlackRock, a decision that didn’t go down well with many voters.

They all stand a reasonably even chance. The candidate most talked about, however, is Jens Spahn, health minister and one of the first openly gay senior politicians in Germany. In 2002, he was the youngest MP at 22 and is seen as a consummate operator. He got away with criticising the refugee influx – even while in Merkel’s cabinet – but has since mellowed.

A key factor in the CDU’s deliberations will be the ability to strike a coalition deal with the Greens. In amongst a sense of gloom about the state of the parties and the rise of the AfD, the rise of the Greens is remarkable. It is eminently possible that they – not either of the four candidates – could end up succeeding Merkel to the chancellorship. The CDU would then have to get used to being the junior partner.

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