So, what about that German politics? Back in September 2018 we rang the bell to say that this time it was serious and the end of the Merkel era really was at hand. In that post, we reviewed the runners and riders and predicted Annegret Krampf-Karrenbauer would emerge as the favoured successor, which she did. We also noted just how badly Merkel’s succession planning had gone so far, with a succession of favourite sons and daughters disgracing themselves (zu Guttenberg), failing to make the dysfunctional defence bureaucracy work (zu Guttenberg, von der Leyen, *and* AKK – a challenge Merkel seems to set everybody sooner or later), bungling provincial elections (Klöckner), or moving onto other challenges (von der Leyen).
Well, turns out that’s one prediction that lasted really well. The split between the party leadership, the chancellor, and the still-to-be-determined future candidacy was always a painfully awkward solution, and now AKK is out, having struggled to make any progress with the defence ministry or, more critically, develop any authority of her own while Merkel is still around.
How this happened, though, is far more interesting than the mere fact of another Merkel successor biting the dust. The challenge of developing a distinctive profile, policy agenda, or personal authority while the great chancellor is still dominating the stage may be impossible, but Germany is experiencing a complex political crisis which touches all the parties at once.
In October, the state of Thüringen held its elections, making the incumbent Left Party the biggest single force (results) but leaving it without enough seats to continue its coalition with the SPD. Tortuous negotiations between the parties followed, with the important constraint that the CDU refuses to be in a coalition with the Left on the grounds that it is the successor to the East German communists. Eventually, the state parliament convened with no agreement and proceeded to the vote.
An important detail: Thüringen’s state constitution provides for two rounds of open voting in which a simple majority is required to elect a minister-president, before a third round, where the candidate with the most votes is elected.
On the first two rounds, Left Party incumbent Bodo Ramelow got 44 votes and the CDU candidate 24, with the AfD members abstaining. On the third, the FDP (which only barely beat the 5% limit to get seats at all) unexpectedly fielded a candidate, the CDU backed their fellow member of the “bürgerliches Lager”, and then the AfD astonished everyone by voting for the liberal, making Thomas Kemmerich the first FDP minister-president since 1953, and ushering in a mammoth political crisis.
Taking the event literally, as it were, would mean that Thüringen would get a government 95 per cent of the electorate had voted against, without any parliamentary base, and permanently dependent on a party most Germans consider to be infested with Nazis. The decent course would be to refuse the honour, leading to the dissolution of the Landtag and new elections, but Kemmerich wouldn’t let go (not least because taking office for even one day was worth over €100,000 in various payouts to him) until the party leadership essentially bullied him into it. Actually implementing his exit, though, turned out to be rather complicated as the legal options all require either the election of somebody else, or new elections. The parties are finding the first difficult to agree on, and all of them except the Left Party and maybe the Greens want to put off the second as long as possible.
The upshot has been a political earthquake. The immediate impact is easier to list than describe in continuous prose.
- CDU leader AKK couldn’t discipline the party boss in mighty Erfurt, and resigned
- The FDP became a national laughing stock and will probably be brutally punished at the Hamburg state elections, as its departure from the centre is now blindingly obvious
- Unlike AKK, its leader did manage to chastise their local boss, saving his own job at least until the election results hit
- The SPD is likely to enjoy some blessed relief from its own problems by thrashing the Hamburg FDP and CDU
- The AfD found a bug and did its best to crash the system, but polling suggests it has gained nothing
- Bodo Ramelow and the Left party are ruthlessly using the crisis to force the CDU to abandon its doctrine that they are equivalent with the extreme-Right. They may well get it
- Although Ramelow got a deal with the Thüringen CDU, the problem is now the opposite – the central CDU, itself leaderless, is making trouble
- The Greens are likely to take another big chunk out of the core CDU vote
- Having repented of their swing to the populist Right, the CSU has now become more Merkel than Merkel, with a new strategy focused on competing with the Greens
This is all very complicated, so I’m going to break it down into a series of posts spinning off good German content I’ve been collecting.