News in Australia this week is that the intelligence community is warning of the threat of far-right terrorism – a warning that gained extra salience from an attack in Germany a few days ago that killed nine people.
But the parallel between the countries doesn’t end there. In both, security and politics are intertwined. While Australia’s right-wing government struggles to ignore or downplay what its own security agencies are saying, Germany’s politicians are dealing more urgently with the question of how to engage with the far right.
When we looked at Thuringia earlier this month, its state parliament had just elected a liberal premier in the most controversial of circumstances. FDP leader Thomas Kemmerich narrowly defeated the far-left incumbent, Bodo Ramelow, with the aid of votes from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative. The national leadership of both the FDP and the centre-right CDU condemned the move and called for fresh elections. The CDU’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, heir apparent to the federal chancellorship, resigned over her inability to keep her state colleagues in line.
As I said before, there was a certain logic in Kemmerich getting the job, despite leading the smallest party in the parliament, because the FDP is in the middle of the spectrum. No doubt his hope was that the parties to his left – Ramelow’s Left, the centre-left SPD and the Greens – would accept a fait accompli and support him in office, thus avoiding any reliance on AfD. That hope has been shown to be wildly unrealistic.
Kemmerich duly resigned, admitting that he had blundered badly. But the state FDP and CDU were both desperate to avoid an early election, expecting to bear the brunt of voter anger. The FDP only made it into parliament by five votes last year, so it has no margin for error.
And then last Sunday, on the other side of the country, voters in Hamburg had their say. The city-state election there saw the existing coalition government of SPD and Greens comfortably returned, with the Greens making major gains to become the second-largest party. The Left also gained slightly, but the CDU, FDP and AfD all went backwards.
That was particularly disastrous for the FDP, since it lost a third of its vote to finish (just) below the 5% threshold and so was unable to win proportional seats – it will be represented only by a single constituency MP. AfD just scraped back with 5.3%.
Clearly Hamburg has a very different political climate from eastern states such as Thuringia. But the national political leadership has to somehow deal with both.
The FDP and CDU in Thuringia would much prefer to go back to the situation before last October, with Ramelow in government and themselves in opposition, but they don’t want to take responsibility for getting there. Yet since the left-of-centre parties no longer have a majority, there are no other options: once co-operation of any sort with AfD is ruled out, there will have to be tacit co-operation with the Left.
Last week at Inside Story, Klaus Neumann gave a very fine account of the story to that point. It’s well worth a read; he explains both the Thuringian background and its national significance. He’s particularly acute on the plight of the CDU:
The Christian Democrats are currently experiencing the most serious crisis in their seventy-five-year history. Their internal problems affect the work of the coalition government in Berlin and are likely to further entrench the view among Germany’s partners that the country is not interested in providing leadership. The party that more than any other has shaped the history of the Federal Republic and has led the federal government for fifty-two of the past seventy-one years is at a collective loss about how to position itself. It does not know how to reverse its longstanding decision not to collaborate with both Die Linke, a democratic party with an anti-democratic past, and the AfD. It does not have a collective vision for a life after Angela Merkel. And it does not know how to deal with those of its members who are tempted to violate the taboo of getting into bed with certified fascists …
Since then, a deal has been reached, although the national CDU is still not happy. Its Thuringian branch has agreed to back Ramelow’s return to office on a caretaker basis, with a fresh election to be held in April next year. As the Left’s federal co-leader put it, “The fact that two political opposites in the democratic spectrum, Die Linke and the CDU, were able to find a common solution, shows the enemies of democracy their limits.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem that the centre-right faces – in Germany, in Australia, and in most of the democratic world. Can it realistically treat far left and far right as equal pariahs, or does it have to step back from moral equivalence and treat one of them as a legitimate part of the democratic process? And if so, which one?