Thüringen: The Long Goodbye

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.

Bad neighbourhoods

From US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “The West is Winning” speech at the Munich Security Conference

The West is winning. We are collectively winning. We’re doing it together.

Let’s start with a simple fact: Free nations are simply more successful than any other model that’s been tried in the history of civilization. Our governments respect basic human rights, they foster economic prosperity, and they keep us all secure.

It’s why so many people risk a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Greece and Italy, but you don’t see the world’s vulnerable people risking their lives to skip illegally en masse to countries like Iran or to Cuba.

Iran has been absorbing refugees for decades from Afghanistan. There are around 1 million registered and more who were displaced. And then there are the generations of Iraqis who took refuge in Iran during the Saddam era. Or as Pompeo would say, they “skipped illegally en masse.”

Irish election resources

The exit poll is out. The widely reported 3 way tie — in first preference votes — between Fianna Fáil (main opposition), Fine Gael (minority government) and Sinn Féin (the ostensible surprise packet in the election).

The next indication of results will be the famous “tally” — an estimate of first preference votes, constituency by constituency, based on skilled observers of the ballots as they are sorted. These people are clearly needed in Iowa (or could have lucrative careers in Las Vegas). Check the website of national broadcaster RTE (and no, that’s not Erdogan’s twitter account) later on Sunday morning for these numbers.

But more than any recent election in Irish history, the action is going to be way down in the count — as lower preference votes are allocated, and the big 3 parties walk a tightrope between too many candidates per constituency and thus splitting votes, and too few to pick up vote reallocations.

At this stage it looks like a pattern seen in other countries — of a quiet late surge back to the governing party (e.g. Austria, Australia) is being replicated in Ireland. On the other hand, much hyped features of last year’s European Parliament election (such as the “green wave”) have gone into remission.

Finally for now, since the main interest overseas will be in the SF surge, here is their manifesto. It has some interesting points of emphasis, and omission.