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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

Ex-chancellor Schröder sues German Bundestag for removing perks

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has sued the German parliament for removing some of his official post-retirement perks over his links to Russian energy giants, his lawyer said Friday.

Ex-chancellor Schröder sues German Bundestag for removing perks

Schröder, 78, has come under heavy criticism for his proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin and involvement with state-backed energy companies.

The decision to suspend Schröder’s taxpayer-funded office and staff in May was “contrary to the rule of law”, Michael Nagel, told public broadcaster NDR.

Schröder “heard of everything through the media”, Nagel said, noting that the Social Democrat had asked for a hearing before the budget committee responsible but was not given the chance to express himself.

READ ALSO: Germany strips Schröder of official perks over Russia ties

Schröder’s lawyers filed the complaint with an administrative Berlin court, a spokesman for the court confirmed.

In its decision to strip him of the perks, the committee concluded that Schröder, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, “no longer upholds the continuing obligations of his office”.

Most of Schröder’s office staff had already quit before the final ruling was made.

Despite resigning from the board of Russian oil company Rosneft and turning down a post on the supervisory board of gas giant Gazprom in May, Schröder has maintained close ties with the Kremlin.

The former chancellor met Putin in July, after which he said Moscow was ready for a “negotiated solution” to the war in Ukraine — comments branded as “disgusting” by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Last week, the Social Democrats concluded that Schröder would be allowed to remain a member after he was found not have breached party rules over his ties to the Russian President.

Schröder’s stance on the war and solo diplomacy has made him an embarrassment to the SPD, which is also the party of current Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

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