For thirty-six hours, as of this writing, Germany has been in uproar over something in Erfurt, the capital of Thüringen, a state in Germany. It was an election. Ninety assembled delegates, popularly elected late last year, assembled to choose the new head of the state government. Once elected, the head of the sttae government (Minister-President) would appoint cabinet ministers and get on with the business of things.
All the commotion is about the party known as the AfD, which was crucial in electing the winner. It appeared that the AfD would be “in” (though not leading) a state government for the first time ever. The AfD had broken through the cordon sanitaire.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it is, at least in Germany, and I have been seeing it unfold live, if from a distance. I would compare it metaphorically to a case of significant civil unrest, or a war panic. “Constitutional crisis” gets much closer to non-metaphorical accuracy.
By “constitutional crisis” I mean both the formal constitution and the informal one, but moreso the latter. Most countries have a formal, written document called a Constitution but all have at least an informal constitution which includes “norms,” the way things work, the implied and consensus way of things.
An AfD breakthrough and entry into a state govenment shatters through the Federal Republic of Germany’s informal constitutional provision of the “cordon sanitaire” against right-wing political forces to the right of the CDU, which today is a centrist party (and I would propose that seeing the AfD of today is the CDU of the 1980s or 1990s is a useful way to understand it). If that fundamental aspect of cultural-political life slips, it is a crisis for the regime in Berlin. And that explains why so much attention is being funneled on one small state.
I don’t know that this has even made the news in the US. The boring news-fare in the US is the Trump impeachment vote, the “State of the Union” pep rally, Coronavirus, and the Iowa Caucus counting failure. All those are shoving around for elbow-room in the US news-cycle.
Thüringen has so totally dominated the German news the past two days that one has to do some real legwork (or scrolling-work) to find any sorts of other news stories on top news sites. It’s being described with words like “shock,” “earthquake,” and one news outlet even (dishonestly) used the word “coup.”
By coincidence, the US impeachment political-theater ended with the foregone-conclusion acquittal vote the same day as the drama at Erfurt.
I must admit that I found the impeachment intolerably boring and also unnecessary given the foregone-conclusion nature of it all. A waste of time. The Erfurt drama of the past two days, on the other hand, was a genuine drama, a shock development. It seems to have caught people by surprise. I know I didn’t expect it.
What has just happened does seem historic, to me as an observer. Maybe it will be forgotten, maybe not, it’s hard to make calls like this in the moment. I am writing as it is happening, so this is a kind of political diary of a distant but highly interested observer.
In sixteen or so years of following German politics, including a period on the ground there, I don’t know that I have ever seen something like this, something receiving such outsized, blanket media coverage in Germany given the small size of the state involved and the ambiguity of the entire situation.
About five years ago, I wrote, and posted on these pages, a post I titled “Here Comes Bodo Ramelow.” Bodo has led the government of the German state of Thüringen (or Thuringia in English), capital Erfurt, since late 2014, just over five years. He made some small waves at the time (2014) for leading the first “far left” government in Germany since 1990. Linke is a party that still believes in Marxism, or most of its leadership does, anyway.
Suddenly, today, Bodo is gone. An alternate title to this post would be “There Goes Bodo Ramelow,” to tie up the loose end left hanging on these pages in late 2014 (“Here Comes…”). It’s not that he came or went that is of main interest, though, it’s the ‘how,’ and the reactions to the how, and the precedent of the how. And the “AfD Question.”
Here is Bodo looking confident during the voting on the morning of Feb. 5:
As far I can tell, he has done fine these five years, and is the kind of figure that the east German regime wished it could have evolved into.
But this time Bodo lost.
Here is the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporting on the aftermath:
That headline (“Politisches Beben in Thüringen; Wenn Rechenspiele Realitat werden”) says “Political Earthquake in Thuringia. When Math-Games Become Reality,” a reference to the mathematical fact that Bodo didn’t have the votes and the AfD did, on paper. No one expected the AfD to be decisive in the election of the new government, despite the “math games” suggesting it should be. As for earthquake? Yes it is.
Consoling Bodo on his shock loss is his fellow Linke party figure Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, b.Oct. 1977, of East German upbringing and thus a natural Linke figure. Though on the young side to really be a loyal East German (she only turned twelve during the anti-regime protests that climaxed in the breach of the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9–10, 1989, with the loss of zero lives), her mother was a figure of the East German Interior Ministry and her father rose to the rank of captain (Hauptkommissar) in the East German police (Volkspolizei) (as described in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung during her original rise to prominence in 2014 with Bodo Ramelow). The Hennig family therefore made the best of their lot in East Germany, and Susanne clearly grew up with a nostalgia for that state, one she knew in her 1980s childhood and was replaced by the pessimistic 1990s by her teenage years and early twenties. East Germans went from the winners of the East bloc to the losers of the Federal Republic. One can understand how she feels.
(Die Linke means The Left; the party, in the context of Thuringia and other ex-East German states, is definitely the successor to the Sozialistische Einheitspartei (SED), the ruling party that seemed so in control until about Q3 1989, then very quickly looked ridiculous. The SED-successor party (previously under other names) was getting fairly strong and consistent vote totals by the late 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s in East Germany, suggesting the East German regime had more underlying popular support than our Western version of events has it. The Linke took enough of the vote to get 29 of the 90 seats in Thuringia thirty years after the regime-unraveling period. If there is a fresh election, which as as of this writing is a possibility, it looks set to gain seats.)
Here were the three state-level leaders of the Linke (Susanne Hennig-Wellsow), Greens, and SPD, back in late 2014, confident that their new coalition would be elected and which put Bodo in power for the first time:
If what has happened in Feb. 2020 is indeed the AfD’s breakthrough into the mainstream, a word on how it happened, as I see it, including drawing from personal experience. The two-word summary: Migrant Crsis, fall 2015.
The last of the new elections since the Migrant Crisis that gave birth to the AfD in present form occurred at the end of 2019 in Thuringia.
The AfD confirmed its staying power in three elections in fall 2019: In the states of Brandenburg (taking 23 of 88 seats), Saxony (38 of 119 seats), Thuriginia (22 of 90 seats), 28% of the whole between them, with the best result in Saxony despite a last-minute judicial ruling that due to a filing error, many of the AfD’s candidates were ineligible (when the smoke cleared, this weird judicial ruling cost them a net of one seat, I think, but could have been more). (I recall writing on this topic at the time but not publishing it here due to technical problems I was having with then-bloghost Weebly and giving up.)
Elections in multi-party parliamentary systems take weeks, or sometimes months, to fully sort out, to “form a government” involving several parties. Germany today has a six-party system with no single party likely to reach as much as a full one-third of seats anywhere ant any given time, and so some combination of the six parties (sometimes a seventh at local level) is needed.
The Thuringia vote broke as follows in 2019 (there is a two-tiered voting system but final number of seats are determined by percentage of the popular vote, minus parties that fail to clear the “5%-Hurdle”):
Thuringia State Election Results (2019):
..90 seats: TOTAL in incoming state legislature (Landtag)
– 29 seats: Linke (in this area, primarily a successor of the East German ruling party; the party of incumbent leader Bodo Ramelow);
– 22 seats: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (in this region, the AfD is seen as an civic-nationalist paprty with a strong ethnonationalist current, especially as the state party is led by nationalist-oriented figure Björn Höcke, who quit his job as a teacher to crusade against Angela Merkel during the Migrant Crisis);
– 21 seats: Christian Democratic Union (a mix of centrists, some remaining old-line conservatives, Merkel Machine people, and people who vote for them because of intertia);
– 8 seats: Social Democratic Party (SPD) (a party that is historically leftist, more recently center-left, now largely seen as centrist, fading fast after years of being seen as ineffective junior-partners to Merkel, always propping up her coalition);
– 5 seats: Greens (a party with dissident-left origins in the 1980s that by 2020 is the new primary left-wing party at national level; many ideologically committed ex-SPD have gone to the Greens, but in Thuringia I expect as many or more have shifted to Linke);
– 5 seats: Free Democratic Party (FDP) (a market-liberal, or “freemarket” party; under revived leadership of Christian Lindner it has become an important power-player again, and is at the center of the Feb. 2020 government crisis in Thuringia).
There are many to whom the above is a confusing jumble and not interesting at all. If there are any of those who began reading this, they’ve long since stopped reading, so that’s okay. As for me, I find it profoundly interesting: A stable six-party system.
Since high school I have felt the US could do with something like this. It would make democracy more interesting, instead of having two huge parties with internal factions constantly trying to hijack the whole, why not just split the facitons into separate parties that are more ideologically coherent? The key is proportional representation.
The 90 incoming Landtag people took their seats and, by secret ballot, voted for a new state leader, which they call Minister-President. Tradition holds that the largest party gets to have its leader elected Minister-President, but there is no legal requirement for this.
Incumbent Minister-President Bodo Ramelow no longer had the votes:
Linke+SPD+Greens is a continuation of the Ramelow coalition but now only has 42 votes, needing 46.
A coalition of AfD+CDU+FDP makes most sense, from a “solving the equation” perspective, having 48 votes.
Bodo Ramelow (Linke, incumbent), on his best ballot, got 44 votes, suggesting a clean sweep of the Linke, SPD, and Greens and two CDU or FDP ‘defectors.’ Still not enough.
Björn Höcke (AfD) the anti-Merkel insurgent, got 25 votes, suggesting 22 AfD and 3 CDU/FDP votes. In fact those votes were not for him directly but for an independent not even in the Landtag whom the AfD had proposed as a compromise, a man named Christoph Kindervater (b.1977; I cannot confirm that he is, as his name suggests, a father of children). So technically count that as 25 for Kindervater. Either way, far from enough.
Both main candidates having failed, the voting was opened up to others, just as at a US presidential nominating convention when no one quite has enough delegates (“brokered convention”). The other minor parties were now in the spotlight. The FDP played its characteristic role, deciding to enter its man, Thomas Kemmerich, into the race, perhaps not expecting much.
Then the shock: The FDP man won a majority, presumably taking all AfD, CDU ,and FDP votes. No one knew who was voting for whom because it was a secret ballot. The natural coalition wonafter all, but excluded either of its largest factions, and the FDP, a minor party that barely got any seats, was king. A small case of the tail wagging the dog?
Kemmerich was previously an unknown figure, but now the entire political class in Germany, and many observers further afield, knows the name.
Thomas Kemmerich in, Bodo Ramelow out.
Here is how one outlet reported it:
That bold headline says “Gigantic election-shock in Thuringia: FDP ousts Ramelow with AfD votes, a stunned reaction in the Landtag.” I believe this was a live-ticker that was backdated; the live, running updates were added later and the shock-moment of the FDP/AfD breakthrough was back-dated to create a timeline. The crisis began soon thereafter.
The newspaper Welt, which is one I read regularly, has its eight top stories all about the Thuringia Landtag affair as of this evening. That’s eight of eight top stories right now at Welt.de; Seldom is anything so dominant in the news. The other outlets are about the same.
Kemmerich gave his opening speech:
Here is the schoolteacher-turned-political-crusader, AfD figure Björn Höcke, in AfD promotional material produced yesterday, shaking hands with newly elected Minister-President Kemmerich (back turned):
Not long after this congratulation was given came the deluge.
The chattering classes started chattering and twittering about what had just happened.
There is a distinct layer to life in the Federal Republic, as I have observed it, from near and far, of institutionalized opposition to the Right (any part of organized force of any kind to the ‘right’ of the CDU), and formerly to the Left (including but not limited to the party know as the Linke). Political theorists use the term cordon-sanitaire to describe this. A political quarantine, cordoned off from the rest of society. If people inside the quarantine make some kind of organized attempt to break out of a quarantine zone, they are subject to being shot in extreme cases; the political cordon-sanitaire is likewise is policed, and the barriers are regulalry reinforced, and any small-scale breakout is suppressed. This Thuringia case kicked in the professional quarantine enforcers and the volunteer-militia auxiliary into overdrive, red-alert mode.
The AfD is now a voting member of a state government! They began to say, which was based in truth but what exact government Kemmerich would form was still unknown; the histrionics cart had gone way, way in front of the observed-reality horse.
So it was that on Feb. 5 word began to spread that a quarantine breakout had occurred. There were escapees on the loose. They’ll need to be dealt with. The paid professionals and the volunteer militia all began to turn out, and some began to fan out to take up shooting positions (metaphorically).
In the days following the election last year, state-level CDU leader Michael Mohring, whose party had been beaten by the AfD, suggested he’d prefer the left-winger Ramelow to maintain control over any cooperation of any kind with the AfD. This “Better Red than [AfD]” line was not popular with his own voters nor his own party elected officials and there were some signs of a possible mutiny. He quieted down about it, but now I see he has chimed in with a veiled assertion of the same, following the election of Kemmerich. Mohring is a lifetime politician who thought it his due to get the reins of government after all these years he’s been at it.
The FDP national leader Christian Lindner, whom I find to be among the more interesting figures in German politics the past five years, gave a brief press conference in which he disavowed the AfD but said it wasn’t his fault; it was a secret ballot; they didn’t know the AfD would vote for their man; they won’t work with the AfD. This was not entirely convincing, and some have been alleging he masterminded the whole thing. If so, did he miscalculate?
For more than 24 hours, Kemmerich stood firm. The entire ruling apparatus of the German Federal Republic came down on him, but he had been legally elected and saw no reason to apologize.
Top figures in the national-level CDU began a series of ritualistic denunciations. The presumed next chancellor candidate, a woman a hyphenated name so long that people prefer to call her, and she calls herself, AKK, said she would be directing CDU Landtag members in Erfurt to refuse to take any part in a Kemmerich government or face consequences.
To return to the policing the cordon-sanitaire metaphor, longtime insider Angela Merkel herself donned a mask, grabbed a powerful flamethrower, and headed down and join the suppression efforts herself. A breakout discovered in the cordon-sanitaire is serious business, and she was ready to strike. “No cooperation with the Kemmerich government or you’re expelled from the party.”
One wonders if the CDU bigwigs realize they are reelecting Bodo Ramelow, and discrediting themselves in the eyes of many marginal CDU voters. They are effectively vetoing the election results. I don’t know if they possess this self-awareness or not.
Some members of the FDP itself, such as Bundestag member Thomas Sattelberger, grabbed a pitchfork and joined the townspeople heading for the quarantine zone to help the suppression effort. Sattelberger denounced Thomas Kemmerich for “cooperating” with the AfD and threatened to quite the FDP. Once again this Sattelberger is a case of emotional overreaction: Kemmerich did not cooperate, but was elected by secret ballot.
Ask not for whom the lynch mob forms, Thomas Kemmerich, it forms for thee.
There was much less stir, I think, when Linke broke through in 2014. The election of Bodo Ramelow (as written about briefly on these blogpages at the time), who now looks like a fuddy-duddy conservative, did raise right-wing eyebrows but the world did not end. There were no breadlines in Thuringia, no gulags, no huge secret police force that roughed up dissidents (at least not one run by Ramelow), no huge statues of Ramelow or Little Red Ramelow books in schools.
The people with the bullhorn in Germany have begun to call for a new election. Several polls suggest the CDU stands to lose still more seats in Thuringia in such an event. Various other low-level drama was going on, as all eyes were locked onto Erfurt for a second day. There was no other political news. We’ll see what Friday brings.
Now Kemmerich has announced he will resign. The threat from the highest level by the neo-Merkel/wannabe-Merkel known as AKK effectively meant no path forward. Kemmerich was compelled to bow out. Apparently the law says he is eligible for his pay as Minister-President of the state of Thuringia in full, 93,000 Euros, as he was duly elected and legally held the office, despite his resignation. 93,000 Euros for one day’s work is pretty good.
What will come of this?
A new election could mean the CDU loses a net of about three seats and the SPD could lose a net loss of about two; Linke would gain a net of about three. This according to two opinion polls, one from January, one from today.
The Linke party, from my experience, is the conservative option for east-Germans born between about the late 1930s and the early 1970s, those who grew up with the communist regime; if this polling is right, some are shifting back to the known-quantity, safe option.
But these small seat shifts from a new election may mean no change in potential government formation.
The biggest loser is definitely looking like the CDU, both in micro terms (in the state itself with this specific chess game at the Landtag), in state terms, and nationally in terms of prestige. It looks like this affair is discrediting the CDU in the eyes of many of its core constituency, and the AfD stands to gain.
The last word I see is that the state-level CDU, realizing it stands to lose most, is resistant to the call for new election but is in the process of being overruled by the CDU apparatus from Berlin.
On the origins of the AfD: The Migrant Crisis of 2015–2016.
As I write elsewhere above this long, reflective political essay, there are a lot of knee-jerk anti-AfD people in Germany, and indeed the entire establishment is counted among them; a distant observer, say a Korean, would probably be puzzled at this.
Seldom will people ask why did the AfD emerge; how has it remained strong; where did the AfD come from.
I see the answer to the question of the AfD’s origins as unambiguous and able to be dated pretty precisely, which I want to relate here by way of memories and personal experience.
Something big, very big, happened in European politics in 2015, and its epicenter was in Germany. It was then commonly called the Migrant Crisis, a bizarre period of huge upsurge in inflow of people, mainly Muslim men, seemingly encouraged by Chancellor Angela Merkel who seemed to invite one and all. She gave orders to keep the border open to refugees who were moving across Europe and kept saying there was “no limit” to the numbers of refugees Germany was willing to wave in from the Mideast, or wherever.
The hundreds of thousands arriving per month, each new wave encouraging the next, so shocked Europeans (and Americans at the time, contributing to Donald Trump momentum during the 2015-16 Republican primary season in the US), that the latter half of the 2010s can only be remembered as the half-decade of successes for what was, at the time, primarily called Populism. I’m not sure the label Populism will survive as a descriptor because it is so vague. But whatever label one chooses, this was a big deal. Brexit rode the same wave of enthusiasm and I am convinced would not have succeeded without the Merkel order on refugees. The Brexit vote was right at the tail end of the so-called Migrant Crisis.
I passed through Germany in Jan. 2017, spending several days in Frankfurt, and saw signs all around of this ‘hit’ that had just occurred. I encountered several men who identified themselves as Syrians aggressively begging here or there, often at train stations, and in English. I recall now one in particular. He was as aggressive as the others, but was bold enough to actually physically make contact with people to get their attention, touching their shoulders or so. Then he half-menacingly said he was a Syrian and went into a canned line about needing food, by which he meant money. It was all with a menacing air, the same kind of opening an armed robber often uses. Needless to say, a disturbing development.
(Other relevant memories from Frankfurt: Lots of political graffiti, much of it against ‘Nazis.’ A church that had been converted into a refugee assistance center.)
On the margins of the news out of Germany since late 2015, we read of refugees involved in robberies, other petty crime and drugs, streetfighting, woundings, rapes, and even murders. A few cases of terorr attacks, the biggest one at that Christmas Market in which a driver raced through plowing into dozens, killing many.
One notable incident was at Chemnitz in Aug. 2018, in which a group of Muslim refugees in their early 20s, apparently all of them among the group waved-in by Merkel, killed a local man and hospitalized two others in a knife attack. Initial reports had the Muslim refugees, who were of Middle Eastern origin, attempting a sexual assault, and that the three German men may have been attempting to stop it; in the media storm that followed, it is hard to sort out what the truth was, but what is known is than that one German man was dead and two were in the hospital in serious condition.
The Chemnitz attack itself was minor, but the outrage somehow proliferated and a large-turnout protest was quickly assembled. Opponents of the protestors claim it was a riot. Chemnitz made headlines for this “right-wing” riot and the usual people lined up to denounce racism as stories spread of the protestors “chasing racial foreigners out of the town” or forcing them hiding. Many of the Chemnitz marchers did say they want no Muslim refugees, want them all out, to return the city to normal. I remember this firestorm at the time. It spilled over into international media. Little was said about the three knife victims or the supposed attempted rape(s) that triggered the protest; little condemnation for the swaggering refugees armed with knives who killed a man.
In looking up this story again 17 months later, I see everyone saying there was no sexual assault involved, just the one murder and two malicious woundings of unclear motivation. The big-boys in the media are all saying the reports of sexual assault were only a rumor. I have no special knowledge here. I do find an investigative report published in a feminist magazine called EMMA (active since 1977) which had a reporter do a series of street interviews in Chemnitz at the time of the controversy. One Chemnitz high school teacher, female, told EMMA that she knew some of the knife-gang refugees, whose identities were locally known in town after the murder; this teacher said the refugees had been known to regularly harass her students, she specified it was at least one of the exact refugees involved in the knife attack. She one of her students was even nearly raped by this same group. Chemnitz is not that big, and these young men were already notorious locally by summer 2018. The report in EMMA was published Aug. 31, 2018.
Images of piranhas released in a fish tank come to mind.
I had been to Chemnitz, once, in 2007. I don’t recall much, but there was a giant statue of Karl Marx’s head, after the former name of the city. The US phrase Rust Belt came to mind for Chemnitz. No foreigners at that time, at least none conspicuous. I was only passing through. Having a spare week, I was headed south of Chemnitz towards the Czech border where there was good hiking, the Erzgebirge. I was on foot. I hadn’t thought much more about Chemnitz between then and Aug. 2018 when it hit the news again.
The Chemnitz man killed in the knife attack in Aug. 2018 was in his early 30s at t he time, just a little older than I.
I recall being saddened and angry, and I am sad now recalling this and other incidents like it. What is one to think? Here is one thing one might think:
Why had Merkel done this?
A lot of people were asking why. It may seem simplistic to believe, but later investigation and reporting revealed that it really was entirely Merkel who made an executive decision to open the border and invite in Muslim refugees “without limit;” she consulted no other senior government official and brooked no dissdnet. She was on a moral crusade.
Merkel showing off how moral she was in this manner got many Germans angrier and angrier,and the anti-Merkel protests whose main slogan was “Merkel Must Go” were marked also by calls for her to be tried for treason.
Merkel was restrained in the end, and the huge inflow of male Muslim refugees dropped to a lower level, though quite a large number had made it in. The spigot turned off after a lavish payoff to Turkey was arranged.
I don’t think it’s hard to imagine what people on the receiving end felt about this. Such a large scale operation looked a lot like a tag-team in operation. It was the sudden perception of the tag-team, all at once by millions, that gave birth to the dissident AfD.
Half of the tag-team is personified by that aggressive Syrian at the train station in Frankfurt I witnessed and mention above (and, maybe in a darker sense, by the knife-armed refugees at Chemnitz, though many would object that very few refugees actually commit murders). The other half of the tag-team is personified by Do-Gooder Merkel herself. The tag-team aspect here was that the latter kept waving-in the former, and the former would support the latter and be useful props in the latter’s quest for world popularity. The latter also holds the bully pulpit and had the power to punish critics. The tag-team is not necessarily brand-new, but the huge scale during 2015-2016 was impossible to ignore. As thousands came in every day for month after month, it left a huge, disgruntled, and ever-angrier constituency in the middle.
The political consequence was that about one-third of Merkel’s own party defected to the new AfD between the end of 2015 and 2017 and millions of disgruntled nonvoters or minor-party voters were mobilized. The AfD was the foremost political voice calling for a strict limit on refugees and the repatriation of those who had arrived and been waved-in; elements of the non-Merkel CDU and FDP also called for the same, but could not outflank the AfD.
Merkel’s Do-Gooderism was therefore just enough to cause a serious rupture in German politics. Germany, being a country with a mature, stable party system and which was in a time of economic prosperity, it would be like, in US terms, if the Republican Party lost a third of its members in the late 1990s to the Reform Party, never to return.
Given the AfD’s dissident right-wing and ethnonationalist tendencies, it occupies exactly the kind of place in politics and culture that the German ruling apparatus (state; media; academia, the big church bodies; really all of mainstream culture) love to bash, and from which bashing it gains a form of what political-science people call negative legitimacy (= They’re bad; we’re not them; we’re against them; so you have to support us.)
By 2017, the AfD was seriously competitive and all signs pointed to staying power. In Sept. 2017, they took 94 seats in the Bundestag (13.5% of total), to a net loss of 105 seats by the CDU-SPD ruling coalition. They have now taken seats in every state legislature, and are the largest party in the former eastern states. Following its unlikely rise in the late 2010s, it is now set to cause real disruption in the 2020s, and the second month of the decade, it had already begun.