Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is continuing its divided approach to the threat from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). As elections approach in three eastern German states in September and October, a pattern has begun to emerge: While the federal party leadership condemns the AfD, local politicians flirt cautiously with the right-wing populists.
The clash came into focus on Thursday, when Ulrich Thomas and Lars-Jörn Zimmer, two CDU deputy parliamentary leaders in Saxony-Anhalt, produced an eight-page internal memo arguing that CDU voters and AfD voters actually had similar goals. The CDU had failed, they wrote, to properly counter the "multicultural currents of leftist parties and groups."
"We must succeed in reconciling the social with the national once again," the two politicians wrote. They also said a CDU coalition with the AfD at some point in the future should not be ruled out.
Since Saxony-Anhalt is not due to go to the polls until 2021, the declaration is in no danger of being tested soon: "The current situation is that it's not possible. We don't know what the situation will be in two or five years," Thomas told the local daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, before suggesting that while the AfD had many "radical" politicians, there were also "liberal" forces within the party. "We'll have to see which movements break through," he said. For his part, the CDU's Saxony-Anhalt leader, Holger Stahlknecht, rejected their stance.
And the pronouncement drew immediate criticism from national CDU leaders. General Secretary Paul Ziemiak was moved to capital letters and multiple exclamation marks to express his exasperation via Twitter on Thursday. "For EVERYONE to take notes again: the CDU strictly rejects any coalition with the AfD!!! That isn't just my opinion, but the resolution of the CDU federal party conference," he wrote, before citing the relevant party resolutions.
'Conservative, not reactionary'
Last Saturday, Ziemiak explained what he considered the important boundary his party drew, and why the CDU would "never" make common cause with the AfD (or, he added, with the socialist Left party for that matter): "We in the CDU distinguish between conservative and reactionary, we distinguish between the justified concerns of citizens and nationalist propaganda," he wrote in another tweet.
Thomas and Zimmer had an ally in former intelligence agency chief Hans-Georg Maassen, another CDU member who believes a CDU-AfD coalition is not unthinkable. However, the two may have chosen a bad week to spark such speculation: It emerged last weekend that the leading suspect in the killing of CDU regional leader Walter Lübcke was a known neo-Nazi.
In the ensuing days, major CDU figures, including Merkel's successor as party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said the AfD's aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric had made the party "complicit" in the death. What's more, she said she also believed the AfD's use of "hate and incitement" had upended taboos and "lowered inhibitions so much that they result in pure violence."
Weak in the East
But a glance at the opinion polls in the states neighboring Saxony-Anhalt is enough to show what might have been on Thomas and Zimmer's mind. A Forsa poll had the AfD leading the CDU by four points in Brandenburg on June 11 (21% to 17%), while another had the CDU and the AfD neck and neck in Saxony (both on 24%). Of the three eastern German states where elections are looming, only in Thuringia is the AfD currently polling in third place: (CDU: 26%, Left party 25%, AfD 20%). There is a real chance that Germany could see its first AfD state-level government ministers by the end of the year.
At the same time, there is also a good reason why federal CDU leaders would be drawing a line in the sand between their conservatism and the AfD's anti-immigration agenda: A new national poll released by public broadcaster ZDF found that the most popular coalition option among Germans at the moment would be a CDU alliance with the Greens. Some 46% of respondents said they would prefer such a political constellation.
And yet, the sense that the CDU is losing touch with eastern German voters is clearly troubling the party, a disorientation exacerbated by the impending departure of Merkel, and the current lack of personal popularity of her successor Kramp-Karrenbauer (a Bild newspaper poll found that more people would prefer to see Green party leader Robert Habeck as chancellor than Kramp-Karrenbauer, if the chancellor could be directly elected, by 51% to 24%).
Even centrist CDU forces are aware of this. Karin Prien, spokeswoman for the party's more moderate stream, Union der Mitte (Union of the Center), told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung she could certainly understand why eastern Germans might have "a different view of certain discourses" than the rest of Germany. She also understood why East Germans might feel that the country's reunification had not been as successful as many thought.
At the same time, she professed herself "shocked" at the casualness with which people were claiming that the CDU and the AfD had any affinities. Not everyone in the CDU feels that shock, though.