The current political strategy causing turmoil in Germany’s democratic system revolves around a relatively unexciting piece of legislation.
Lawmakers on the center-right side of the political spectrum in the state of Thuringia, located in eastern Germany, sought to reduce a tax on local properties by a minor percentage. They were able to accomplish this with the backing of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).
This decision goes against traditional practices, as mainstream parties have typically promised to keep a “firewall” between themselves and the AfD. This party is viewed as a significant danger to democracy in a country that is vigilant about the remnants of Nazism. Some believe that even considering support from this party would legitimize far-right ideologies or make them socially acceptable.
When members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) voted for a tax reduction in September with the support of the AfD, it caused significant shockwaves in the political scene of the country, which are still being felt.
“I feel like a barrier has been shattered,” stated Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Green Party from Thuringia, following the vote. “It not only demonstrates the removal of a barrier, but also the presence of open cooperation.”
The issue of dealing with increasingly prominent far-right extremists in government bodies, from national and state legislatures to local councils, is expected to become more challenging for mainstream parties, especially the CDU.
This is particularly evident in the former East German states, where the AfD is currently polling at approximately 28%. Next year, Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg, all eastern states, will hold parliamentary elections. The party is projected to be in the lead in all three states according to polls.
On Sunday, the AfD is expected to increase its representation in the parliaments of Bavaria and Hesse. The latest polls show that in Hesse, the AfD is close to surpassing the center-left Social Democratic Party led by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
The predicament that mainstream parties are currently facing is evident. Collaborating with the AfD would result in normalizing a party that is perceived by many to have intentions of undermining the government. However, isolating the party would only alienate a significant portion of its supporters.
The firewall has also unintentionally become a political advantage for the AfD, as it allows them to position themselves as the top choice for those who are dissatisfied with mainstream parties and want to send a message of disapproval to the country’s political system.
Simultaneously, the dispute surrounding the recent election in Thuringia appears to have worked in favor of the AfD, giving them the opportunity to portray themselves as defenders of democracy rather than its opponents.
The “‘firewall’ is history — and Thuringia is just the beginning,” AfD party leader Alice Weidel posted on X, formerly Twitter, after the vote. “It’s time to respond to the democratic will of citizens everywhere in Germany.”
The leaders of Germany are well aware that the rise of the Nazi party began with their success in democratic elections. In 1930, the Nazi party gained their first significant share of governing power in Thuringia through a coalition with conservative parties.
The CDU’s opponents were well aware of this fact.
According to Janine Wissler, leader of the Left party, German conservatism has historically supported fascism and played a crucial role in its rise. She pointed out that this trend originated in Thuringia, and criticized the CDU for not learning from history and continuing down a dangerous path.
The leaders of CDU in Thuringia reject the notion that the vote on tax reduction signifies the weakening of the firewall. They claim that there was no collaboration with AfD prior to the vote, although members of AfD state that there were conversations among legislators.
After the vote, Mario Voigt, the leader of the CDU in Thuringia, stated that he is unable to make beneficial and significant choices for the state due to the possibility of receiving support from the wrong individuals, which impacts families and the economy.
The CDU’s national leader, Friedrich Merz, has given conflicting messages regarding the firewall, specifically its definition. While stating that the CDU will not enter into coalitions with the AfD, Merz has not been as definitive about potential collaborations with the party in other capacities.
During a TV interview in the summer, he appeared to imply that collaborating with the AfD at a local level was almost certain.
“We have a responsibility to acknowledge and respect the results of democratic elections,” he stated. “If a member of the AfD is elected as a district administrator or mayor, it is only natural to seek ways to maintain progress in the city.”
Following a disturbance, Merz retracted his statement. He stated on X, formerly known as Twitter, “There will not be any collaboration between the CDU and the AfD at the local level.”
Following the election in Thuringia, Merz reaffirmed his support for the CDU leadership in the state. He stated on German television, “We base our decisions on what we believe is right, not on who is in agreement.”
Some members of his political party disagree with his perspective. Daniel Günther, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, strongly condemned his fellow party members in Thuringia. “As a conservative, it is my duty to clearly state that I will not form alliances with extremists,” Günther stated.
Thuringia has been embroiled in a controversy surrounding the firewall before. In 2020, a relatively unknown member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, Thomas Kemmerich, was chosen as state premier with backing from the CDU and AfD. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her disapproval, labeling the decision as “unforgivable.”
After the intense uproar, both Kemmerich and the leader of the CDU group in the state stepped down. However, due to the significant number of AfD members in the regional parliament, the matter was likely to come up again.
The issue extends beyond just Germany. Mainstream political parties across Europe are facing increasing pressure as the radical right gains momentum.
In France, various political groups have come together to create a cordon sanitaire, also known as a sanitary cordon, in order to prevent Marine Le Pen, a far-right leader of the National Rally, from becoming president. However, as Le Pen’s party has become the largest opposition group in the National Assembly, maintaining this cordon has become increasingly challenging.
In the European Parliament, a comparable barrier has been put up. The center-right European People’s Party has openly been seeking the support of the European Conservatives and Reformists, who are home to Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party.
In the state of Thuringia, the stakes are raised due to the presence of some of the most radical members of the AfD in the local branch. Authorities at the state level responsible for monitoring groups that go against the constitution have labeled the party’s local branch as extremist.
Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD in Thuringia, is currently facing legal action for using prohibited Nazi language. In 2021, he ended a speech with the phrase “Alles für Deutschland!” which was a rallying cry for Nazi stormtroopers.
Höcke strongly criticized the commemoration of the Holocaust in Germany and expressed concerns about “Volkstod,” the decline of the German people due to “population replacement.” Due to these beliefs, German courts have deemed it acceptable to label Höcke as a fascist or Nazi.
Poll of polls for the national parliamentary elections in Germany.
To access additional polling information from various European countries, go to POLITICO Poll of Polls.
Following the decision on the property tax in Thuringia, Höcke expressed his satisfaction, stating that the AfD had played a role in implementing a practical policy.
He stated that today is a favorable day for Thuringia.
Reporting was provided by Peter Wilke.