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No scandal? What Thuringia’s leftist PM’s support for right-wing AfD deputy means for Germany

No scandal? What Thuringia’s leftist PM’s support for right-wing AfD deputy means for Germany
Thuringia’s newly elected PM has thrown his support behind a tabooed AfD party candidate for the post of his deputy, much to the dismay of his own Left Party. Yet, no scandal followed. So, what has happened in German politics?

The German eastern state of Thuringia has been a steady source of unnerving political news for Berlin for quite some time. In early February, it shocked the nation as a little-known politician was promoted to the post of a regional prime minister with the help of Alternative for Germany (AfD) – a controversial right-wing party ostracized by virtually all other political forces. At the time, the news provoked a nationwide scandal.

Also on rt.com PM of Germany’s Thuringia resigns, calls for dissolution of state parliament after scandalous vote brought him to power

Last week, things in the troubled state were just about to return to normal. The unexpectedly elected prime minister promptly resigned and Bodo Ramelow, who was widely expected to take the post in the first place but was sidelined during the February vote, was chosen as his replacement. Yet, days after his own election the new regional leader threw his support behind AfD politician Michael Kaufmann as his choice of deputy prime minister, predictably horrifying fellow party members, who constantly take pride in their staunch “antifascist” stance.  

The broader reaction to the move was surprisingly reserved, though. The German media extensively covered the issue but focused more on Ramelow’s explanations or simply stated the fact that he backed an AfD candidate.

Germany apparently saw nothing even close to the February scandal. So, what has changed in over less than a month?

‘Is this democracy as we understand it?’

Ramelow still faced his fair share of criticism, though. The politician was attacked both by fellow party members, who called his decision “wrong” and stated they “no longer understand” his actions, and apparently disgruntled supporters, who, according to his own admission, “questioned his antifascist attitude.”

In response, he published a lengthy explanation on his blog, where he justified his decision by nothing other than a rule of law. He further noted that the efficiency of democratic institutions is more important than certain political preferences.

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Ramelow explained that he decided to vote for AfD since the party refused to name its candidate for parliamentary commissions approving judges and prosecutors unless its member was elected deputy prime minister. Such a situation rendered both institutions non-operational for months, he said.

The politician admitted that AfD’s actions essentially amounted to political pressure. Yet, the idea of changing the law itself to simply keep AfD out of all institutions, as suggested by some of his critics, would only undermine the very same democratic principles his opponents were so eager to defend by scolding his choice, Ramelow argued.

Is this democracy as we understand it? Would it not just lead to the strengthening of all those, who repeatedly accuse us of seeking to bend any [rules] only to keep AfD out?

Political miscalculations

It does not seem, though, that Ramelow’s somewhat desperate appeal to the rule of law could suddenly provoke a change of heart in Berlin. After all, the fact that the February vote in Thuringia’s parliament, although a clear political manipulation on the part of AfD, was perfectly legal, never stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top politicians from calling it “unacceptable” and demanding the results be outright reversed.

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The German political elite still considers AfD, a party known for its strong anti-immigrant position and blamed for the rise of far-right extremism, a pariah and still believes it is a taboo to cooperate with its members on any issues. Ramelow himself, who described AfD as a party “trampling on democracy” that cannot expect to be “treated normally,” is hardly an exception here.

Yet, he might be very well right about one thing: continuous attempts to keep out the right-wingers enjoying a steady support of some 12 percent of the German public has so far hurt establishment parties more than AfD itself. 

Thuringia's February debacle and Berlin's furious reaction to it eventually ended up with a crisis in Chancellor Angela Merkel's own party – the Christian Democrats (CDU). This was clearly demonstrated by its recent defeat in the Hamburg regional elections, where the party achieved arguably its second most embarrassing result in its history.

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Christian Democrats’ ruling coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has been in disarray ever since the disastrous 2017 general election, where it also suffered its worst result in history. Public support for what was once named one of the two Germany’s “people’s parties” has meanwhile fallen even lower since that time. Many within the party linked the crisis to the fact that it lost its own distinctive image in the shadow of its long-term allies.

Support for the German establishment is slowly eroding, making the German political landscape increasingly fractured and casting a shadow over the prospects of a stable majority coalition following the next general election.

Looking for an alternative

It is true that AfD is arguably far from a paragon of a democratic political force. The party repeatedly sparked controversies by stirring up anti-Islam sentiment, insulting people of other ethnic backgrounds, and flirting with Nazism – the anathema of the modern German political life – definitely more than once.

Yet, it is true as well that the party is not going to disappear just because other German politicians keep pretending it does not exist. Both Thuringia’s February scandal and Ramelow’s latest move demonstrate that AfD has garnered just enough public support to provoke a political “quake,” even if at a regional level. Its aftershocks are already being felt across the country.

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The AfD is clearly here to stay. And a new refugee crisis looming behind the backs of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa once again gathering on the Greek border with Turkey could only further unbalance the German political mechanism which does not resemble the clockwork it once used to be.

In these circumstances, it’s still an open question: can the German establishment find the courage to get off its moral high horse and apply Ramelow’s kind of pragmatism, trying to work with the AfD and making it play by democratic rules instead of “playing with democracy,” as Thuringia’s prime minister put it.

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