Thomas Kemmerich, of the small pro-business Free Democrats, was elected as governor of eastern Thuringia state by its regional legislature on Wednesday with the support of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
The result stoked uproar. It became a major embarrassment for Germany's mainstream center-right parties and revived questions about the future of the country's governing coalition. The governor is elected by the state legislature. Merkel — whose center-right party's own regional lawmakers voted for Kemmerich against the wishes of its national leaders — condemned his election as “inexcusable” and said the result must not stand.
Kemmerich narrowly defeated a left-wing incumbent after the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, voted for him instead of its own candidate. Left-leaning parties and many from the center-right said that accepting votes from AfD , whether solicited or not, broke a taboo and was unacceptable. All mainstream parties have vowed not to work with AfD.
Kemmerich initially held out against mounting pressure to resign, insisting that he had not made any deal with AfD and would not do so. But with no prospect of forming a viable state government, he pulled the plug after a little more than 24 hours.
While insisting he hadn't made mistakes, he said his party would seek the dissolution of the state legislature. “With this, we want to bring about new elections in order to clear the stain of support by AfD from the office of governor," he said.
“Democrats need democratic majorities,” he added. He added that his “resignation is inevitable,” though he didn't specify when. Thuringia's local politics have been in a state of uncertainty ever since an inconclusive election in October.
Previous governor Bodo Ramelow's Left Party finished first, followed by AfD and Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Kemmerich's Free Democrats, traditional allies of the CDU, only just mustered enough support to enter the legislature, with five of its 90 seats. Following the furor over Kemmerich becoming governor, the party may struggle in a new election.
The last election stripped Ramelow's left-wing coalition of its majority. In a first for Germany, it produced no majority for any combination without either Ramelow's Left Party — which the center-right shuns as a descendant of East Germany's ruling communists, though Ramelow is moderate — or AfD, which is particularly strong and radical in the east.
“Thomas Kemmerich's decision is right, but even after 24 hours long overdue,” the CDU's general secretary, Paul Ziemiak, said in Berlin. “Any impression that Nazis such as (regional leader Bjoern) Hoecke or others in AfD could have an influence on government jobs or even government policy in the future damages our whole country.”
Merkel said during a visit to South Africa that Wednesday's outcome had been “foreseeable” — “so one has to say that this event is inexcusable, and the result must be reversed.” Merkel said everything must now be done to show that it doesn't reflect “what the CDU thinks and does.”
Leaders from Merkel's often-tense national coalition with the center-left Social Democrats are to meet on Saturday to discuss the Thuringia mess. Social Democrat leaders have said it raises questions for the CDU that demand quick answers, fueling renewed speculation over whether the coalition will last until its term ends late next year.
Merkel said her party has sent “very clear” signals after Wednesday's events. Martin Florack, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg, told ARD television that the fiasco weakens Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Merkel as CDU leader in 2018, and leaves “the impression that the CDU in Berlin has no influence in Thuringia.”
Merkel's party has yet to decide who will run to succeed her as chancellor in the next German election. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who narrowly defeated a more conservative rival for the party leadership, has struggled to impose her authority on the party.
This week's events are also likely to hurt Kemmerich's Free Democrats, who are in opposition nationally but have been part of many past German governments. National chairman Christian Lindner stressed the need for “a firewall against AfD” and said he would seek a vote of confidence from his party leadership Friday.