Sascha Ott, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, was set to become the justice minister for the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Now the lawyer is in hot water for "liking" the competition a little too often.
"I have to ask myself if we've all gone mad," Sascha Ott, a state prosecutor from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, said at last week's state convention for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). Ott had just lost his nomination to be state justice minister for what his party called "improper conduct on social media." His mistake: being a little too keen for the competition on Facebook.
Ott (above, left) reportedly clicked "like" on several pages belonging to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), including the official page of a local party office. The 50-year-old from the town of Greifswald is also accused of liking several articles by the newspaper "Junge Freiheit" (Young Freedom), which has been mentioned several times in state security briefings as "anti-constitutional." According to the "Zeit" newspaper, Ott also liked an article from a regional news portal describing a brawl between members of two religious groups that had been widely shared by AfD members.
In a scathing speech, Ott told his fellow CDU members that the affair reminded him of the Stasi, East Germany's feared secret police. "I do not have to publicly apologize," Ott said, adding that he would not "lock himself into the cage of political correctness."
'An imminent threat'
Founded in 2013 as a protest party that advocated Germany's leaving the eurozone, the AfD has seen its popularity skyrocket since pivoting to an anti-foreigner stance after a leadership struggle ousted founder Bernd Lucke last year. Since then, the AfD has routinely made headlines for its hard line against Merkel's refugee policy. At its convention in May, the party officially adopted the policy that "Islam is not a part of Germany" as part of its manifesto.
The deep discomfort caused by the rise of the AfD has its foregrounding in Germany's historical baggage, but there's also a practical worry for the CDU in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Voters in the state are leaving the country's ruling party for the AfD in droves. In September, the CDU was trounced in state elections, garnering only 19 percent of the vote and entering the state government as a junior partner to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The AfD managed to get 20.8 percent in its first time contesting an election in the state.
These results are also worrying at the federal level. Chancellor Merkel is herself a CDU member from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and is looking ahead to an election year after a summer in which her approval ratings plummeted to a five-year low. Many blame Merkel's refugee policies for her declining popularity, considering them part of a broader CDU shift toward the center that has left many conservative-minded Germans casting glances in the AfD's direction.
The AfD - now led by co-founder Frauke Petry - currently has seats in 10 state parliaments and looks likely to enter the federal legislature, the Bundestag, in 2017
"The AfD presents an imminent threat to the CDU," Tim Spier, a social sciences professor at the University of Siegen, told DW. "We are talking about a very definitive competition between the two parties," he said.
Spier sees the prosecutor Ott's situation as potentially more complicated than the details released so far suggest. "I don't think liking one Facebook post would be enough to ruin someone's career," he said. "There must be more behind it."
The professor added that politicians should be more forward-thinking in their social media activities. "You have to ask: Why would a politician like a far-right Facebook post in the first place?" Spier said.
Merkel not out
The CDU in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will be happy when Ott's name is no longer in the news. "Everything's been said," a spokesperson told DW via telephone. "We cleared up the matter at our party convention."
The new justice minister will be Katy Hoffmeister, a lawyer described as a "young, competent ... deeply involved party member" by state CDU chairman Lorenz Caffier.
Although unlikely, it would be an unprecedented disaster if Merkel were to lose her constituency, which includes Ott's hometown, in next year's election. Addressing the Ott affair, Merkel told her fellow CDU members that she hoped the party could govern without starting from the point of "testing ourselves for possible ruptures."
Over the summer, Merkel's approval rating briefly dipped to 49 percent, its lowest point for her current term in office
As for Ott, he has refused to step down from the CDU. Furthermore, he has called on his party to return to its conservative roots.
The Christian Democrats might do well to heed Ott if they do not want another grand coalition with their main rival, the SPD, in 2017 - but that does not necessarily mean that the chancellor will have to worry. Despite backlash against her refugee policies, reports in early October found support for Merkel on the upswing, unsurprising for a leader who consistently proves predictions of her downfall to be premature.