On a day when the acquittal of Donald Trump and the chaos in the Democratic Party leads to a sense of despair for the future of liberal democracy, it’s natural to avert one’s gaze. Turning to Europe instead offers a different perspective, but not necessarily a more encouraging one.
Today’s news is from Thuringia, in central Germany. A little over three months ago it acquired the sad distinction of becoming the first German state since the Second World War in which far left and far right won a majority of the vote between them.
Since then, its politicians have been trying to put together a new government. Yesterday they succeeded – after a fashion.
You can read my report on the election result here. Basically the three parties that had supported the outgoing government – far left, centre-left and Greens – lost their joint majority, winning in total 42 of the 90 seats.
Opposite them were the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) with 21 seats and the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) with 22. Despite occasional murmurings from its more right-leaning members, the CDU has consistently rejected any co-operation with AfD; in any case, the numbers left that combination also short of a majority.
In the middle, holding the balance of power, were the liberals (FDP), who just scraped into the state parliament with five seats. (The colored diagram at Le Petit Journal makes the position clear.)
With liberals and centre-right both refusing to countenance a deal with the far left, there was a deadlock. When parliament opened yesterday, sitting premier Bodo Ramelow, from the far-left Left party, put himself forward for re-election, with the support of the Social Democrats and Greens. On the first ballot, needing an absolute majority, he had 43 votes to 25 for AfD’s candidate and 22 abstentions.
Voting was by secret ballot, so it’s not possible to say exactly who voted which way, but clearly the CDU and FDP, with 26 MPs between them, had mostly abstained, with a handful of defectors.
On the second ballot, also needing an absolute majority, Ramelow got closer: 44 to 22, with 24 abstentions. Close, but not quite close enough.
On the third ballot, with the requirement for an absolute majority dropped, FDP leader Thomas Kemmerich threw his hat in the ring. AfD switched its support to him, and he won with 45 votes against Ramelow’s 44 and one abstention.
FDP and CDU both deny that they have broken the taboo against negotiating with AfD. And there is some logic to their position: if Kemmerich has not actually offered the far right anything in return for its support, it’s not obvious what harm is done by him taking office. Although he represents the smallest party in the parliament, its position in the middle of the spectrum makes him a logical choice.
The problem, however, comes with the question of just how Kemmerich expects to govern. Since the Left and AfD have the numbers to bring down his government at any time if they work together, he must ultimately depend on the support, if only tacit, of one or other of them. (And the fact that he only had 45 votes in the ballot, not the 48 of the combined FDP-CDU-AfD strength, indicates that his position is already precarious.)
And here the example of the United States returns. Supporters of democracy and inhabitants of the mainstream generally are being put to the choice of whose support they will accept in a pinch – far left or far right. It’s never a comfortable choice, but on both sides of the Atlantic I think the last few years have shown the far left to be less of a danger.
The national leadership of both the FDP and CDU are clearly uncomfortable with what their Thuringian colleagues have done. But while some of them have called on the Left, SPD and Greens to support Kemmerich, none of them seem to be arguing that he should have negotiated a coalition with them in the first place.
Yet if the far right is to be kept out of the tent, a fresh election is the only other option. CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has suggested exactly that, and it this stage it looks quite likely. But even if it solves the problem this time, there is no guarantee it always will: at some point the problem, and the choice, will recur.
Ramelow had been premier of Thuringia for five years; there’s no suggestion that the state had edged towards totalitarianism in that time. The Left, like similar parties across much of Europe, has become part of the routine of German democracy.
As I’ve said before, I see no reason in principle why AfD cannot one day be tamed in the same way. But that day has not yet arrived. In the current state of the world, this is a bad time to be making concessions to the far right or breaching the firewall keeping it from power – which Germany, due to its historical experience, has maintained more dutifully than most.
Thuringia’s liberals and conservatives are supping with the devil, with the usual attendant dangers.