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Merkel’s conservatives in turmoil after far-right vote debacle in eastern German state

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives are in crisis mode after regional MPs sided with the far-right in a key vote, causing nationwide outrage and testing her leadership.

Merkel's conservatives in turmoil after far-right vote debacle in eastern German state
An exit sign at the CDU press conference on Friday. Photo: DPA

Merkel condemned Wednesday's “unforgivable” vote in the small state of Thuringia, where her CDU party voted in the same camp as the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) to block the re-election of a leftist state premier.

Thanks to the CDU and AfD, Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal Free Democrats, one of Germany's smaller parties, ousted incumbent premier Bodo Ramelow from the far-left Die Linke party by one vote.

It marked the first time a state premier had been voted into office with help from the far right, shattering a taboo in Germany where mainstream parties have always ruled out working with the AfD.

Faced with an uproar, Kemmerich offered his resignation just 25 hours later and called for snap elections.

But the wider aftershocks are only just being felt in Berlin.

“Merkel's fatal error,” headlined the conservative newspaper Die Welt, accusing the veteran chancellor of failing to find a strategy to deal with the growing might of the AfD.

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Merkel's centre-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), are fuming about the apparent betrayal in Thuringia.

The two sides will hold crisis talks on Saturday in the latest stress test for the fragile alliance.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered to restore trust,” said SPD co-leader Saskia Esken.

Meanwhile, FDP leader Christian Lindner suvived a vote of confidence on Friday and will remain chairman of the party.

In a statement, Lindner apologised and sought to distance himself and the party from the AfD. He said that the FDP belonged to the “democratic centre of the political landscape”.

FDP leader Christian Lindner. Photo: DPA

'Hanging by a thread'

The Thuringia fiasco was also a humiliating blow for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is seen as Merkel's chosen heir but has struggled to assert herself since replacing her mentor as CDU leader in 2018.

The CDU's Thuringia arm, led by the ambitious Mike Mohring, ignored her pleas not to vote alongside the AfD on Wednesday.

Worse still, Kramp-Karrenbauer – often known by her initials AKK – was unable to get the rebel branch to back new elections despite hours of emergency talks late on Thursday, as they fear an even worse showing than in the original October polls.

AKK appears helpless” as her authority is increasingly undermined, the Bild newspaper wrote in a scathing assessment.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's prospects of replacing Merkel as chancellor once the longtime leader bows out in 2021 “are hanging by a thread”, it added.

Die Welt said Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer shared the blame for not recognising just how far Mohring would go to have a seat in government.

Nor had they provided the local branch with a plan B after Thuringia's inconclusive legislative polls pushed the CDU into third place behind the AfD and Die Linke – both parties the CDU won't cooperate with.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's arch-rival Friedrich Merz, liked by the CDU's most conservative members, is already waiting in the wings to take advantage of the turmoil.

AKK on Friday. Photo: DPA

He announced this week he was quitting his job on the supervisory board of the German arm of investment firm BlackRock to dedicate himself to politics and helping the CDU “renew itself”.

Cracks in the firewall

Set up in 2013, the AfD started out as an anti-euro outfit before capitalising on widespread anger over Merkel's 2015 decision to allow in a flood of asylum seekers at the height of Europe's refugee crisis.

It now has representatives in every regional parliament in Germany, as well as in the national Bundestag.

The AfD is especially strong in states in the former communist east, putting even more cracks in the political firewall meant to keep them out of power.

“The chancellor has always sidestepped the issue of the AfD, and in Thuringia she's paying the price,” said Welt.

A Forsa survey released Friday predicted that the CDU would be punished most if Thuringians were asked to return to the ballot box.

After scoring 21 percent of the vote in October, the CDU would now slump to just 12 percent.

Former state premier Ramelow's leftist party would come out ahead with an even better showing of 37 percent, followed by the AfD at a slightly improved 24 percent.

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POLITICS

How successful was Germany’s latest ‘Warning Day’?

For Germany's second emergency 'Warning Day' Thursday, all cell phones were set to sound off at 11am, but many stayed silent. Here's the verdict from the country's latest attempt to check its emergency systems.

How successful was Germany's latest 'Warning Day'?

Using so-called cell broadcast technology for the first time, all cell phone users in Germany with a German phone number were to receive a blaring emergency notification for the second Warntag (warning day). This was to test how well they would be alerted to an actual urgent situation, such as flash flooding or a blackout.

The technology sends out alerts regardless of the phone provider or if a person is signed up for them. Even if their phone is switched to silent mode, phone users receive a loud buzzing notification that’s hard to ignore.

READ ALSO: All cell phone users in Germany to be part of disaster ‘warning day’

But on Thursday at 11 am that was not the case for everyone.

According to initial information from the BKK, many Telekom customers in particular did not receive the warnings.

Another warning day is already planned for September of next year, in what will now be an annual test.

Deactivated test warnings in the phones’ system settings could also be a reason for the phones remaining silent. Many older models, such as the iPhone 6 or devices with Android 10, are also unable to use cell broadcast.

But the day was still deemed a “success”, according to BKK President Ralph Tiesler in a statement.

“According to preliminary findings, the nationwide Warning Day 2022 was a success!” said Tiesler. “The interaction of the individual systems has worked and people have become aware of the important topic of warnings. It is still too early for conclusive results. 

“We will now evaluate the feedback and thus be able to further optimize the systems. There’s still room for improvement.”

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) called the test “an important step” in improving how well people in Germany are protected in an emergency. 

People around Germany can also chime in with how well the test worked – or didn’t – using an official survey: https://warntag-umfrage.de/

Other warnings 

Even the warning apps Katwarn or NINA didn’t show an alert for all users, or only did 20 minutes past the 11am deadline.

Around Germany sirens sounded off, billboards flashed warnings at train stations and, in some communities, emergency vehicles drove through the streets broadcasting the test warning.

But some cities – including larger ones like Berlin – stayed particularly silent as they are not yet connected to a Modular Warning System. 

Berlin was also set to have 400 sirens installed by the end of 2022, although only 20 of them had been installed by August, according to the Tagesspiegel.

The importance of reliable warning systems was highlighted by the flood disaster in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in July 2021, when people were not informed in time of the impending danger. Afterwards, a broad debate arose on how this could be improved.

Amid an energy crisis and war within Europe, many people are also hypervigilant about what Germany would do in the event of a wide-reaching emergency.

For previous emergencies, local authorities have relied upon sirens, loudspeaker announcements or radio and TV bulletins to warn residents of acute danger or issue evacuation orders.

There are also smartphone apps to keep users up to date on extreme weather in their area.

But Bild newspaper condemned the “failure” to take early action during the mass flooding in 2021.

“The sirens stayed quiet in plenty of places, very few alerts were issued,” it wrote, labelling the deadly flooding that followed “a disaster for civil protection, one of the state’s most essential jobs”.

The first countywide Warning Day took place in September 2020, without cell broadcast notifications, and was widely considered an abject failure. In the aftermath of the test, authorities were criticised for failing to learn from the issues they had experienced in time for the floods in 2021. 

READ ALSO: Germany questions warning system after flood catastrophe

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