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

Lawmakers in the eastern German state of Thuringia will try again to elect a new state premier Wednesday, re-running a vote that sank Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling CDU party into what has been described as the biggest crisis in its history.

Thuringia set to elect new state leader after far-right vote debacle
AfD supporters protest outside the Thuringian state parliament with a flag that says: 'We are the people'. Photo: DPA

It is the second attempt in a month to form a working government in the former East German state, after CDU MPs there unleashed an earthquake in national politics by voting with the far-right AfD in February.

Amid the national outrage, the liberal candidate elected during the first vote on February 5 stepped down, leaving the state rudderless.

But more significantly, the apparent cooperation of CDU politicians 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.

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

But so far none has offered a convincing answer to the CDU's conundrum in Thuringia, squeezed between the extremes of left and right.

Popular local politician and former state premier Bodo Ramelow of the far-left Die Linke is now up against far-right firebrand Björn Höcke, with Merkel's conservatives once again the reluctant kingmakers.


New force on the right

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

It long provided a home for hardliners on issues like immigration, integration and refugees.

The Left's Bodo Ramelow last month. Photo: DPA

But Merkel has shifted the party to 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.

The far-right is especially strong in Germany's former communist east, which did not go through the same process of facing up to its Nazi past as the democratic west.

Graph prepared for The Local by Statista.

Double-digit scores for AfD in state elections in recent years have made it increasingly tough to build working coalitions that shut out both far right and the radical-left Left party.

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

Some contenders such as long-time Merkel rival Friedrich Merz are advocating a return to the party's conservative roots and winning back voters lost to AfD.

Meanwhile moderates argue the party cannot hope to hang on to masses of centrist supporters if it abandons Merkel's course.

Impossible choice

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

Earlier this month, its MPs voted with AfD to install Thomas Kemmerich from the liberal FDP as state premier, ousting popular Left premier Ramelow.

Faced with national outrage at the unprecedented alliance, the Thuringian CDU branch immediately backed down and its leader quit, but it remains confronted with an impossible choice.

The AfD's Björn Höcke congratulating the FDP's Thomas Kemmerich after the first vote that sparked outrage. Photo: DPA

“CDU votes for a Left party candidate are unacceptable,” moderate party leadership contender Armin Laschet said Sunday, echoing conservative rivals like Merz.

Tilman Kuban, leader of the party's national youth wing, even suggested Monday that MPs “leave the chamber” during the state premier vote to avoid the impression they had cooperated with AfD or the Left.

If Ramelow — whose previous broad left coalition is four votes short of a majority — fails to secure a mandate as state premier, the result will likely be more months with no regional government in Thuringia until fresh elections.

Meanwhile there is little chance of AfD contender Höcke winning.

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 declarations have placed him beyond the pale even for the more hardline eastern CDU branches.

By Kit Holden

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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:

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