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BERLIN — The political maneuvering that is shaking Germany’s postwar democratic order involves a piece of legislation that is as banal as possible.
Center-right lawmakers in the eastern German state of Thuringia wanted to slightly reduce local property taxes – and did so with the support of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
This decision breaks with years of tradition according to which the dominant parties were committed to maintaining a Marquemauer, or firewall, between them and the AfD, a party that many in a country attentive to the legacy of Nazism see as a serious threat to democracy. Even accepting party support, it is believed, would legitimize far-right forces or make them salonfähig – Socially acceptable.
So when parliamentarians from the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, passed the tax cut late one September afternoon with votes from the AfD, it caused tremors in the political landscape of the country which are still reverberating.
“For me, a taboo has been broken,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Green leader from Thuringia, after the vote. “It shows me not only is the firewall gone, but there is open collaboration.”
For mainstream parties, and especially the CDU, the question of how to deal with the growing presence of far-right radicals in governing bodies, from federal and state parliaments to local councils, risks becoming even more difficult. thorny.
This is particularly the case in the states of the former East Germany, where the AfD now leads the polls with around 28 percent. Next year, the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg will all hold parliamentary elections. Polls show the party leading in all three states.
The AfD is expected to expand its presence in the parliaments of Bavaria and Hesse in Sunday’s votes. In Hesse, the AfD is poised to overtake German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic party, according to the latest polls.
The dilemma facing the dominant parties is clear. Working with the AfD means normalizing a party that many believe seeks to overthrow the republic from within. But ostracizing the party only alienates its many voters.
The firewall also serves as an unintended political gift, allowing the AfD to present itself – at a time of great discontent with traditional parties – as the obvious choice for those who want to send a firewall message to the the country’s political establishment.
At the same time, the controversy surrounding the latest vote in Thuringia appears to have played into the hands of the AfD, allowing the party to present itself as seeking to maintain democracy rather than weaken it.
The ‘firewall’ is ancient history – and Thuringia is just the beginning,” AfD leader Alice Weidel said on X, formerly Twitter, after the vote. “It is time to respond to the democratic will of citizens everywhere in Germany.”
German political leaders know only too well that the Nazi seizure of power began with democratic electoral success. In fact, it was in Thuringia that, in 1930, the Nazi Party first took power in coalition with conservative parties.
This fact has not escaped the CDU’s opponents.
“German conservatism has already been the stirrup of fascism,” Janine Wissler, leader of the left party, told the German Press Agency after the vote. “Also at that time it started in Thuringia,” she adds. “Instead of learning from this, the CDU is heading down a path as dangerous as fire.”
The CDU leaders in Thuringia refuse the vote on tax cuts, which means that the firewall collapses. They claim there was no cooperation with the AfD before the vote (although AfD members say there were discussions between lawmakers).
“I cannot make good, important decisions for the state, which bring relief to families and the economy, depending on the fact that bad people might agree,” said Mario Voigt, head of the CDU Thuringia, after the vote.
Friedrich Merz, the national leader of the CDU, has sent mixed signals on the firewall – or at least on what exactly the firewall means. Merz says the CDU will not form a coalition with the AfD, but he was less clear about whether the CDU would work with the party in other ways.
In a television interview over the summer, he appeared to suggest that working with the AfD at the local level was all but inevitable.
“We are of course obliged to accept democratic elections,” he said. “And if a district administrator, a mayor belonging to the AfD is elected there, it is natural that you look for ways to continue working in this city.”
After an outcry, Merz walked back his comment. “There will also be no cooperation between the CDU and the AfD at the municipal level,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.
After the vote in Thuringia, Merz stood alongside the CDU state leadership. “We don’t base ourselves on who agrees, we base ourselves on what we think is right on the matter,” he told German television.
Even some within his own party don’t see it that way. Daniel Günther, CDU Prime Minister of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, in the north of the country, sharply criticized his party colleagues in Thuringia. “As a conservative, I must be able to say clearly and simply the sentence ‘I do not form a majority with the extremists,'” Günther said.
This is not the first time that Thuringia has been at the center of a firewall controversy. In 2020, Thomas Kemmerich, a little-known politician from the pro-business Free Democratic Party, was elected state prime minister with the support of the CDU and AfD. Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened to call the vote “unforgivable.”
In the furore that followed, Kemmerich resigned, as did the then-CDU faction leader. But given the strong presence of the AfD in the local parliament, the issue was bound to resurface.
The problem does not only concern Germany. Mainstream parties are under increasing pressure due to the rise of the radical right across Europe.
In France, parties of all political stripes have formed a sanitary cordon, or cordon santé, to keep Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, out of the presidency. But with Le Pen’s party now the largest opposition group in the National Assembly, the cordon is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
In the European Parliament, where a similar cordon has been erected, the center-right European People’s Party openly courts European conservatives and reformists, home to the Polish nationalist Law and Justice party and the prime minister’s far-right Brothers of Italy Italian Giorgia Meloni. to party.
In Thuringia, the stakes are even higher since the local branch of the AfD has some of the party’s most extremist members. State-level intelligence agencies, charged with monitoring anti-constitutional groups, have labeled the local branch of the party as extremist.
The leader of the AfD in Thuringia is Björn Höcke, who is to be tried for using banned Nazi rhetoric. (In 2021, he closed a speech with the phrase “Alles for Deutschland!» or “Everything for Germany!” — a slogan used by Nazi stormtroopers.)
Höcke spoke out against Holocaust commemoration in Germany and warned against “Volkstod», the death of the Volk, by “replacement of the population”. For such views, German courts ruled that Höcke could rightly be called a fascist or Nazi.
ELECTION POLL TO THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT IN GERMANY
For more polling data from across Europe, visit POLICY Poll of polls.
After the property tax vote in Thuringia, Höcke was clearly satisfied, saying that the AfD had contributed to the implementation of a pragmatic policy.
“It’s simply a good day for Thuringia,” he said.
Peter Wilke contributed reporting.