BERLIN: A controversial vote in eastern Germany claimed two political scalps on Saturday and underscored the fragile foundation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.
The recently elected head of Thuringia, a small eastern German state, resigned owing to a political row sparked by support he had received from the far-right AfD party.
“I announce my resignation as Thuringia minister-president effective immediately,” said Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal Free Democrats, one of Germany’s smaller parties.
Kemmerich was elected to the post on Wednesday, with the backing not just of regional deputies from Merkel’s conservative CDU party but also of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Merkel described the manner of Kemmerich’s election as “unforgiveable”, and on Saturday she effectively dismissed Christian Hirte, the government’s commissioner for eastern Germany and a junior minister, after he congratulated Kemmerich on his success.
A third official has said he would step down in May as Merkel struggles to sustain her tenuous coalition with centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
German media said the SPD had demanded Kemerich’s resignation as a condition for remaining in the coalition, which met Saturday in Berlin after the Social Democrats demanded a “clarification” of the CDU’s position.
A joint statement issued after the meeting said: “We exclude the creation of governments or political majorities with AfD votes (and) that remains the position of the parties that comprise the coalition at all levels,” meaning federal as well as regional.
The coalition’s third partner, which also backed the statement, is the CDU’s Bavarian partner, the CSU.
The three parties echoed Merkel in calling the regional vote in Thuringia “unforgiveable”.
Kemmerich won election over incumbent premier Bodo Ramelow from the far-left Die Linke party by one vote.
On Friday, regional CDU leader Mike Mohring said he would be stepping down in May after ignoring pleas by party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer not to vote alongside the AfD.
The Thuringia fiasco was a humiliating blow for Kramp-Karrenbauer, often known by her initials AKK, who is seen as Merkel’s chosen heir but has struggled to assert herself since replacing Merkel as CDU leader in 2018.
“AKK appears helpless” as her authority is increasingly undermined, the mass-circulation daily Bild wrote in a scathing assessment. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s prospects of replacing Merkel as chancellor once she bows out in 2021 “are hanging by a thread”, it added.
The regional CDU move was also surprising given that Merkel is the AfD’s main target of criticism for having allowed more than a million asylum seekers to settle in Germany in 2015-16.
Thuringia is moreover the German state where Adolf Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, began its march to power, in particular owing to alliances with conservatives.