Weeks full of political drama. Unexpected twists and turns. Then tragedy. These are not the usual characteristics associated with contemporary politics in Germany. But recent events in the eastern state of Thuringia, followed by the surprise resignation of the party leader of the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the racist terror attack in Hanau, near Frankfurt, describe a cascade of tormenting developments. This torrent suggests that German politics are increasingly unpredictable, dangerously polarized and in dire need of a reset.
First came a highly controversial political maneuver in which the CDU in Thuringia formed a voting coalition in parliament with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the far-right AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland) to elect a state premier from the FDP. Following a public outcry that a political taboo had deliberately been breached by the CDU and FDP by cooperating with the AfD, the new state premier resigned within 24 hours. But his resignation was only the start of further representatives throwing in the towel. What seasoned observers of German politics labeled the “breach of a firewall” created a major crisis in party politics in Berlin. Subsequently, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that she was stepping down as CDU chairwoman after only 14 months at the helm. She will remain federal minister of defense. But the chosen successor of Angela Merkel also ruled herself out as chancellor candidate of the CDU.
The unstable “grand coalition” between the CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) now has a further policy challenge to confront. While Chancellor Merkel will not seek re-election in 2021, the resignation of her preferred CDU candidate has thrown the political roadmap into turmoil. The CDU now faces a prolonged leadership campaign. Moreover, political fault lines have been laid bare among competing wings of the CDU, primarily between representatives from western and eastern states of Germany. After the events in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, the assumption that cooperation with the AfD constitutes a no-go area does not hold anymore.
The racially motivated terrorist attack on two hookah bars in the western German town of Hanau on February 19 was a shock, but it cannot be seen as a surprise. Germany has repeatedly been slow to crack down on the growing threat of far-right extremist violence and neo-Nazi groups. Mainstream parties quickly established a link between the rhetoric of the AfD and fostering an atmosphere in which gun violence against citizens with migrant backgrounds becomes possible. Nine of the 10 victims in Hanau were from immigrant communities. Far-right terrorism in Germany is evolving, assembling in chat rooms, while “lone wolves” are posting internet-enabled justifications for their racist motives and murderous fantasies. During the past decade, Germany’s security organizations primarily focused on jihadist-related terrorism. They appear ill-prepared to meet the new challenges of far-right extremism across the country.
Meanwhile, the controversial voting alliance formed with the AfD in Thuringia exposed a broader political conundrum not only for the CDU and the FDP: How do mainstream parties deal with the growing electoral strength of the AfD? Put otherwise, as the far-right party enters one regional parliament after another across Germany the mainstream is looking for ways to beat back the fringes. But excluding the AfD from legitimized politics utterly failed in Thuringia. The political center is increasingly shrinking in Germany. In the past decades, the center-right and center-left parties used to command up to 90 percent of the vote. Today, they hardly manage 45 percent. Thus, the attempts to form governing coalitions against the AfD increasingly require the combination of three parties in different regional configurations. There are currently 13 coalitions in the 16 German states. Until the firewall was breached in Thuringia, such coalitions usually adhered to the principle of “Anything But AfD.” This political tenet is now history and the struggle to re-establish it is anything but guaranteed.
If the mainstream parties in Germany are searching for solutions to this conundrum, one country to look at for alternatives could be Greece. Following the general election of July 2019, after five years of SYRIZA-led administrations, the change to New Democracy’s single-party government was the most significant political outcome. Included in this convincing result was an event that took many voters in Greece and observers in Europe by surprise: the parliamentary defeat of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party. GD’s exit from the Greek Parliament was a remarkable act of political defiance by voters. GD wrongly assumed that many Greek citizens would continue to feast on chaos, protesting that the political establishment in Athens was ignoring the popular will. Instead, those who had previously voted for GD stayed at home because they were fed up with the party’s political infighting. Others were seeking a return to a sense of normalcy that included the predictability of politics and its elected representatives. Whatever the reasons, many voters across Greece were ready to turn a page, leaving anger as a guide to punish candidates outside polling stations. Despite the polarization of Greek politics, cozying up to GD extremists was not considered an option in Parliament.
By contrast, many citizens in Germany continue to abandon mainstream parties such as the CDU and the SPD, either swinging to the ecological Die Grunen, to the AfD, the leftist Die Linke or just voting with their feet. Many politicians between Berlin, Erfurt and Dresden are struggling with the question of how to win back these swing voters without being exposed to charges of collaboration with the AfD. German political parties would be well advised to venture abroad and consider some lessons learned from their European peers. A look to emerging changes in electoral politics in the southern periphery of Europe may provide some useful markers.
For years, German politicians from the CDU and SPD lectured Greek parties – and by extension citizens – on how to confront the economic and fiscal crisis, how to reform the country with top-down mandated politics, and what the costs and benefits would be. Now it appears that the stakes have changed between Athens and Berlin. The sister party of the CDU in Greece is New Democracy. They are both united in the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. The rapport which Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has established with Chancellor Merkel since his first visit to Berlin in August 2019 is promising in substance and coherent as regards rhetoric.
But the Greek PM faces a formidable challenge in the coming months. It is a challenge he shares with colleagues in office across Europe: Whose word can they rely on in Berlin while Chancellor Merkel refuses to be pushed into early retirement and the CDU chooses a new leader who must then enter into a “cohabitation” with her? In short, the politics of Germany remain in limbo at the federal and regional levels. The prospect of a long interregnum in Berlin, with the lame-duck grand coalition limping along until the CDU has identified a new candidate for chancellor, makes any substantial progress in key policy areas unlikely for the rest of the year. This outlook is anything but good news for EU member-states when Germany holds the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of this year.
Jens Bastian is a senior policy adviser at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and economic analyst for Macropolis.