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POLITICS

Merkel’s CDU sidelined as Left party wins closely watched east German vote

Politicians in the eastern German state of Thuringia re-elected a former state premier Wednesday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling CDU party sitting out the vote after a first try sank it into a deep crisis.

Merkel's CDU sidelined as Left party wins closely watched east German vote
The Left's Bodo Ramelow. Photo: DPA

Popular former state premier Bodo Ramelow, of the radical-left Die Linke party, was returned to power, despite falling four votes short of an absolute majority after the centre-right CDU abstained.

It was the second attempt in a month to form a working government in the former East German state, after CDU MPs there set off an earthquake in national politics by voting with the far-right AfD in the first vote on February 5th.

The unprecedented alliance with the far-right triggered the departure of Merkel's designated successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and sparked a new leadership contest for the German chancellor's party.

Amid the national outrage, elected liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich immediately stepped down, leaving the state rudderless.

As Wednesday's rerun of the vote pitted the far-left Ramelow against far-right firebrand Björn Höcke, the only viable option left for the CDU was to abstain in order to hold to its national edict of not cooperating with either extreme.

“We are returning to stable conditions,” said Ramelow , adding that Thuringia had “overcome a crisis of democratic legitimation”.

He refused to shake Höcke's hand after the vote, accusing him and his party of being “arsonists” who were “stamping on democracy”.

Bodo Ramelow refuses to shake Björn Höcke's hand. Photo: DPA

READ ALSO: Thuringia set to elect new state leader after far-right vote debacle

New force on the right

A fundamental article of faith for the CDU during its decades of dominance over German politics since 1949 was that no political force could be allowed to emerge to its right.

But Merkel has shifted the party closer to the centre.

The repeated rescue programmes for Greece during the eurozone crisis and above all Merkel's decision to allow in more than one million migrants and refugees since 2015 stoked the rise of the AfD.

Double-digit scores for AfD in state elections in the East in recent years have made it increasingly tough to build working coalitions that shut out both extremes.

With the party leadership – and likely the candidacy for the chancellorship in 2021 – now up for grabs, those tensions are boiling up to the surface.

The race to a new CDU leadership election on April 25 is a fresh struggle for control between supporters of the chancellor's centrist course and those who believe the party must tack right.

Crucible

With no majority possible in Thuringia without either AfD or Die Linke, the state became a unique crucible for the CDU's repeated declarations that it would work with neither.

In Wednesday's re-run, Ramelow had initially hoped to persuade individual CDU MPs to edge him to the absolute majority needed in the first two rounds, threatening to otherwise call fresh elections.

Yet he changed strategy on Wednesday morning as conservatives railed against a potential cooperation with the far-left.

“CDU votes for a Linke party candidate are unacceptable,” moderate party leadership contender Armin Laschet said Sunday, echoing conservative rivals like long-time Merkel rival Friedrich Merz.

Yet after the CDU's abstention on Wednesday, Hoecke accused them of “holding open the door” for Ramelow, and claimed that the former East German Communist Party SED had “risen again”.

One of the most radical voices within AfD, the former history teacher's rhetoric includes calls for “tempered inhumanity” in removing non-ethnic Germans from the country.

Such statements placed him beyond the pale even for the more hardline eastern CDU branches.

On Wednesday, parliamentary president Birgit Keller opened the sitting with a tribute to the victims of a deadly racist attack in neighbouring state Hesse two weeks ago.

Ramelow is now expected to lead a minority government until new elections in April 2021, in a compromise agreed with the CDU at the height of the crisis two weeks ago.

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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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