(CN) — It’s happened: A taboo against working with an increasingly powerful far-right political party in Germany has been broken, plunging Germany into a bitter political fight and reawakening fears of its Nazi past.
On Wednesday, the far-right Alternative for Germany voted alongside liberals and conservatives from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party to narrowly elect a new premier for the East German state of Thuringia. Their vote ousted the state’s far-left incumbent.
However, the subsequent outcry led to the newly elected premier, Thomas Kemmerich, to say on Thursday he will resign and seek new elections. He had insisted he was not going to govern with the far right, despite its support.
German media said it was the first time in modern German history that establishment parties aligned themselves with a far-right party to elect a state premier, breaking what has been up to now a taboo in German politics to cooperate with the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD.
The vote rocked Germany and immediately sparked protests and outrage.
By Thursday, Merkel, Germany’s longtime leader, was calling for a new vote. During a trip to South Africa, the chancellor called what happened “unforgivable.”
“The result must be reversed,” Merkel said at a news conference. She called it a “bad day for democracy.”
Jörg Meuthen, an AfD spokesman, accused Merkel of having a “crude understanding of democracy” and called her politics “unforgivable.”
But the episode shows some members of her party are ready to break with the chancellor’s vow that her party will not work with the AfD, and also raises questions about Merkel’s power over her party, which is struggling to keep its supporters from migrating to the AfD, especially in places like Thuringia, a German state formerly part of communist East Germany. Today, many people in eastern Germany complain about being left behind economically, while also expressing deep fear of immigration.
Here’s what happened: On Wednesday, the state parliament of Thuringia held a vote to choose a new minister president, the head of the state government.
The vote came down to two candidates: the heavily favored far-left incumbent Bodo Ramelow from the post-communist Left party, which was victorious in October state elections, and Kemmerich, a candidate from a pro-business liberal party, the Free Democratic Party, which had done very poorly in the elections.
In the final vote members from Kemmerich’s party and those from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union joined forces with the AfD and picked Kemmerich. They won by a single vote, 45-44.
The liberals and conservatives denied they coordinated their votes with the AfD, but pundits doubted that.
After the vote, television images showing Kemmerich shaking hands with Björn Höcke, the AfD’s Thuringia leader, brought heavy criticism. Höcke is a controversial figure even within the AfD. He has made anti-Semitic remarks, denounced a memorial dedicated to murdered Jews in Berlin as a “monument of shame,” and said a law that makes it illegal to deny the Holocaust should be abolished.
Recently, a German court ruled it was lawful to call him a “fascist” based on his record.
The AfD is seeking to make itself more acceptable and mainstream. It has grown in popularity based on its anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic message. In the past, its members have been tied to neo-Nazi groups and come under fire for flirting with Nazi symbols.
Wednesday’s vote was a shocking moment for Germany.
Leftist politicians, public figures and voters expressed dismay and anger, accusing mainstream politicians of helping normalize the AfD in a fashion reminiscent of the 1930s and the rise of the Nazis.
“The events in Thuringia are an inexcusable breach of the firewall,” said Norbert Walter-Borjans, a co-leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, on Twitter. The Social Democrats are in a coalition government with Merkel.
“For the ‘liberals’ to become the straw man for the extreme right’s power grab is a scandal of the highest order,” Walter-Borjans said.
The Left party accused the Free Democrats of believing it “better to rule with fascists than not to rule at all.”
At a news conference, the party’s chairman Bernd Riexinger said, “A political taboo has fallen; the dam has broken.”
In Berlin, Merkel’s party also was quick to condemn the vote. The Christian Democrats’ secretary general, Paul Ziemiak, blamed the Free Democrats.
“The FDP has played with fire and set our entire country alight,” Ziemiak said. He said a stable government cannot be formed with the support of “Nazis like Höcke.”
“The AfD can never be socially acceptable for civic-minded parties,” Peter Altmaier, Germany’s minister for economic affairs and a member of Merkel’s party, said on Twitter.
But there was disagreement within Merkel’s group of conservatives. Alexander Mitsch, the leader of a Christian Democratic pressure group called WerteUnion, said the Thuringia vote showed conservatives did not need to align themselves with the Social Democrats or Greens to win.
Meuthen, the AfD spokesman, declared Kemmerich’s victory “the first piece of a political turn in Germany” and a win for Germany’s civic-minded majority.
The AfD’s co-leader Alexander Gauland said it was no longer an option to ostracize the AfD.
Carsten Nickel, an analyst with Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, said the vote will “refuel tensions” inside Merkel’s government, which is based around an uneasy coalition between her conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats.
“The fragile government is back in the danger zone,” Nickel said in a briefing note.
He said the Thuringian conservatives are under pressure from the AfD and their leader, Mike Mohring, “has been looking to the right to contain the rise of the anti-immigrant insurgents.”
He added: “In essence, the Thuringian CDU today chose silent cooperation with the AfD over the acceptance of a post-communist, if moderate incumbent.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)