Editor’s Note: Emily Schultheis is a writer based in Berlin with a fellowship from the Institute of Current Affairs. Her reporting on the rise of the far right has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Politico, among other publications. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It only took one vote in one state parliament for Germany’s populist far right to break a decades-long political taboo, topple Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor and trigger a political crisis whose implications reach even beyond the country’s borders.
The action by the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in the eastern German state of Thuringia earlier this month—where the party voted with two centrist parties, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, to help oust the state’s left-wing prime minister—shattered traditional parties’ long-standing refusal to cooperate with the far right, either formally or informally.
That this occurred in Thuringia, which was the first state in which the Nazi party gained its political foothold in 1930—and also the state where the AfD is led by the party’s most notorious far-right figure, Björn Höcke—exacerbated the sting of the vote in a country still deeply conscious of and affected by its Nazi past. (“A pact with fascism!” cried one headline; Merkel, traveling on a state visit in Africa at the time, called it “a bad day for democracy” and said the decision was “unforgivable.”)
The consequences were swift: The FDP’s Thomas Kemmerich, the man elected with AfD votes, resigned the day after the vote. In response to criticism of her handling of the situation and inability to control her state-level CDU colleagues, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s self-anointed successor and head of the party, also resigned her post; the direction of her party, and therefore the country, now depends greatly on who succeeds her.
What’s more, the whole situation threatens the stability of the current national government under Merkel, a cooperation between the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats. Germany, in other words, went from at least the appearance of political stability to relative political chaos in a matter of days.
Populist far-right parties have now gained a foothold in politics across Europe, both domestically and internationally: In some countries, like Hungary and Poland, they control governments outright and have sought to undermine and dismantle democratic institutions like the media and an independent judiciary. In others, including Austria and Italy, they have served as junior governing partners, taking over key positions like the interior ministry to push their anti-refugee policies.
But this month’s debacle in Thuringia is the latest proof that populist far-right parties need not sit in government to have a major impact on the political debate. The AfD won only 12.6% of the vote nationwide in Germany’s last federal elections in 2017, yet its influence on the political discussion here far outpaces the vote share. That’s in large part because the AfD, and parties like it across Europe, is adept at exploiting existing political tensions to create outright political chaos that they in turn benefit from.
Christian Lindner, head of the FDP, acknowledged as much in a speech to the German parliament in the days after the incident: “We’re ashamed, because we made it possible for the AfD to ridicule us, and through us parliamentary democracy,” he said. “There can be no cooperation with a party like the AfD.”
The AfD’s very existence has a basis in political crisis: It was founded in 2013 in response to Germany’s handling of the Euro crisis, and gained political prominence in the wake of the influx of more than a million refugees into Germany in 2015 and 2016. By loudly lambasting government failures in both instances, the party managed to help sow distrust in Germany’s political establishment and bill itself as the only force capable of disrupting it.
At the same time, the party seeks to be taken seriously as a permanent part of Germany’s political landscape—a goal in which it’s been helped at least rhetorically by its disproprtionate strength in eastern Germany. Last fall, after winning 23.5% of the vote in Thuringia as well as 27.5% in Saxony and 23.5% in Brandenburg, AfD leaders declared themselves a “people’s party” at the center of German politics. When a political party wins roughly a quarter of the votes, it’s very difficult to ignore them or shut them out entirely.
In staging the political chaos in Thuringia, the AfD played on several well-known undercurrents in German politics at the moment: That their actions in a country extra-sensitive to the far right would bring a wave of outrage and headlines; that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s position within the CDU was shaky; that their strength in the East has made it exceptionally difficult to build stable governments while still refusing to work with them. After Thuringia, AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla declared it was proof that “excluding the AfD doesn’t work.”
Since the incident, leaders from Germany’s traditional political parties—including the two who also voted with the AfD that day—have reaffirmed their opposition to working with the AfD in any form. CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak immediately blasted his own party’s actions in the state, saying it was unacceptable to elect Kemmerich “with votes from Nazis.”
Even the right-wing faction of the party, the Values Union, voted formally to exclude any potential cooperation with the AfD in the future. The FDP’s Lindner also called his party’s move a “mistake,” adding, “We’re doing everything to ensure it can never happen again.”
Such a promise is easy to make in the wake of a massive international scandal; it is far harder to keep it when the underlying political tensions and instabilities remain. The AfD clearly isn’t going away anytime soon: Its strength, particularly in the East, will make governing without it increasingly complicated.
But for Germany’s traditional political parties to ensure they don’t hand additional political ammunition to the AfD, they’ll have to stick to their word even when it’s difficult—and avoid playing into the AfD’s strategies for creating chaos.