The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party - playing an unexpected double game - on Wednesday has installed the leader of the small liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and anti-wind lobbyist Thomas Kemmerich as premier of the Eastern German state of Thuringia.
Just a day later, and after intense pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel and high-ranking politicians in his own party, Kemmerich said he would resign and seek fresh elections in the state.
But a lasting damage to Germany's political system was already done.
It was the first time since World War II that a state premier had been elected in Germany with the support of the extreme right, breaking a taboo, and causing chaos in the country’s political scene with possibly wide-ranging implications for the energy policy in Europe's largest economy.
The political earthquake in Thuringia could also endanger a possible future coalition in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) - which also voted for Kemmerich - and the Greens in the post-Merkel years.
A so-called black-green coalition in recent months has widely been seen as the most likely outcome of German elections that have to be held in 2021 at the latest. A possible entry of the Greens into Germany's government is also seen as a promising boost to the expansion of renewables in the country.
The FDP’s Thomas Kemmerich during his campaign for state elections in October 2019 had lobbied for a ban on wind power in forest areas and a stringent distance rule like in neighbouring Bavaria, which there has killed off nearly all new wind developments.
He also defended diesel cars, lashed out against Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as a “16-year-old brat explaining the world,” and warned of “climate hysteria,” practically aligning his views with that of the climate-change denying AfD.
The FDP had only narrowly surpassed the threshold of five percent of the vote in Thuringia needed to enter parliament.
Nevertheless, in a third and decisive vote in the state parliament Wednesday, Kemmerich narrowly defeated the popular former state premier Bodo Ramelow from the Left party (45 to 44 votes) to head the state from now on, although there had been no previous coalition talks with the AfD or Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) that also voted for him.
After the elections in October produced no clear winner, Ramelow had tried to form a Scandinavian-style minority government in Thuringia together with the Social Democrats (who garnered 8.2%) and Greens (5.2%). The Left had become strongest party in the state with 31% of the vote.
The CDU (21.7%) and the FDP (5.0%) had both refused to tolerate a minority administration led by the Left party, but previously had also assured they wouldn’t cooperate with the AfD, which became second-strongest party in the state with 23.4% of the vote.
Thuringia’s constitution states that if no candidate garners more than 50% in the first two rounds of a vote for state premier in parliament, the candidate with the largest single majority gets elected in a third round.
Ramelow was confident to win that vote, but the AfD out-tricked him by putting up a token front man in the third round, but then voting for the FDP candidate instead, which otherwise would have had no chance, given the FDP status as smallest party in the state parliament.
While the FDP and CDU in the state officially say they were surprised by the move, Kemmerich quickly accepted the premiership, and the two parties were accused of having staged a political charade together with the AfD. Despite that, Kemmerich said he would not cooperate with the AfD in parliament, a statement seen as hypocrite after he accepted their support to become state premier.
A bitter Ramelow commented on Kemmerich’s election with a quote by Adolf Hitler from 1930 (before his rise to power in Germany), when the later dictator bragged that no government in Thuringia could be formed without the help of the Nazi party NSDAP.
The AfD in Thuringia with its leader Björn Höcke is dominated by the party's most extremist fringe called Der Flügel, or 'the wing.'
Höcke in recent years had stirred controversy when referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin by saying no other nation than Germany would plant a “monument of shame” in the midst of its capital. He expressed his contempt for the country’s multi-culturalism, and on many occasions has been scolding a supposed Islamisation, ‘Africanisation’ or ‘Orientalisation’ in order to abolish the German nation.
The images of Kemmerich shaking hands with Höcke after his election are likely to haunt the FDP in coming state elections in Western Germany, where the electorate in general is more sensitive to the country’s Nazi past than in the previously Communist East.
Former German interior minister Gerhart Baum from the FDP in an interview to the Die Zeit newspaper said: “The entire FDP is burning now.” He also compared what is happening in Thuringia to the Weimar Republic, the instability of which facilitated Hitler’s rise to power.
Loud protests in front of FDP headquarters in Berlin, Munich and a dozen other German cities erupted late Wednesday after Kemmerich’s election with the help of the AfD, calling for fresh elections, or carrying banners saying “No AFDP”.
Chancellor Merkel - currently on a trip to South Africa - called Emmerich's election "unforgivable," and said her CDU must not participate in his government and call for fresh elections.
"Today is a bad day for democracy," Merkel said.