Are parts of Merkel's conservatives softening to the far-right AfD? A group of CDU politicians in Thuringia has called the party line into question, prompting sharp criticism from party brass and Jewish leaders.
At their 2018 party conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) declared an official party line on collaborating with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), saying that any coalitions or similar forms of cooperation would be off limits.
While the acronym AfD is rarely uttered by CDU candidates on their campaign trails, Markus Söder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party CSU, went one step further, saying even "chatting over a coffee" was out of the question. Meanwhile, Merkel's successor as party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has threatened exclusion from the party for anyone flirting with the idea of cooperating with the far-right.
But in Germany's eastern states, where the far-right AfD has thrived in recent state elections, certain CDU politicians appear to be warming up to the idea of closer contact with the far-right populists — particularly among the CDU's more conservative wing. Known as the "Werteunion" (Values Union), the more CDU conservative faction is desperate to shift away from Germany's political middle ground, which was long Merkel's ideological territory.
Now, amid desperate efforts to form a coalition in the eastern state of Thuringia, a joint letter from 17 conservative CDU politicians there has called for a readiness for talks with "all democratically elected parties."
Quest for 'stable' state government
The October elections in Thuringia were a huge blow to the CDU, which toppled from the state’s strongest party in 2014 to third position, behind the socialist Left party and the AfD. The far-right populists more than doubled their share of the vote, walking away with 22.5%.
Despite not mentioning the far-right AfD by name, the functionaries said they find it unthinkable that "almost a quarter of the voters" in Thuringia should "stay out of the talks."
The letter ruled out, however, the possibility of helping Björn Höcke, the firebrand leader of the AfD in Thuringia, or the current leftist state premier, Bodo Ramelow, to hold office.
"Coalitions with both [the leftist Linke and the far-right AfD] are therefore impossible. However, everything in between must be discussed among democrats in order to fathom whether and how a stable government can be formed in Thuringia," the group wrote.
Jewish council deems letter 'irresponsible'
Responding to the letter, Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told German daily Der Tagesspiegel that the 17 politicians who signed the letter were "acting irresponsibly."
"They help to make the AfD more socially acceptable," Schuster said, underlining that already once in German history, civil politicians had acted as "stirrup holders" for a party operated by the far-right and had been "terribly mistaken."
"This should be a sufficient warning to all democrats today," he said.
Similarly, CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak described the demands for talks with the AfD as "mad."
"The opinion of the CDU has not changed. Period. End of the announcement," he said.
Meanwhile, Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner, called on CDU party leader and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to intervene.
"The firewall against the right is getting more and more cracks on the conservatives' side. It's about time this is stopped," Klingbeil wrote on Twitter.
Top-down ban at local level...
Despite the common party line of the CDU, the top-down "ban" on cooperating with the AfD hasn't always been implemented at lower levels in Germany's political system, which is broken down into federal, state and local.
In recent months, successes for the far-right populists in various local council elections have handed the AfD the chance to cooperate with other parties.
Headlines in in local German media have ensued, often suggesting a relaxation of the CDU's "ban."
On the German-Polish border in Görlitz, for example, town officials appointed AfD politician Norman Knauthe to lead the Environment and Ordinance Committee. Local media described Knauthe as a weapons fanatic and and supporter of the far-right "Identity" movement.
Meanwhile, on the local council of Frankenstein in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, CDU politician Monika Schirdewahn and her AfD husband Horst formed a faction of the two parties under the name "Progress Frankenstein."
...but local politics another animal
Despite cases of cooperation between the CDU and AfD at the lowest levels of German politics, Matthias Dilling, professor in Comparative Politics at Oxford University, warned against extrapolating what we see at local council level and applying that to higher up.
"Local politics works very differently from even state level, let alone federal politics. Personal networks and knowing people is sometimes is more important than party affiliation," Dilling said.
The prospect of the CDU holding talks with the AfD in Thuringia, however, has raised more concerns than in other areas of Germany. Thuringian AfD chief Höcke also fronts the party's extreme nationalist wing, from which even some AfD politicians have tried to distance themselves. The actions of state-level politics can also be significantly more consequential for national politics.
As the CDU looks towards the 2021 federal elections, the conservatives for the largest part are keen to redefine their profile with a likely shift further rightward in the next election campaign.
Dillinger, however, said that cooperation between the CDU and the AfD at state and federal levels remains unlikely. Even within the concept of conservatism, the parties hold substantial differences. While conservatism within the CDU follows a Christian tradition, for example, what some members of the AfD call conservatism, is much closer to national conservatism and positions of the radical right.
"Demarcating itself from the AfD, as opposed to cooperating with it, might actually help the CDU to sharpen its profile by clarifying: 'This is what we stand for; this is what is unacceptable for us,'" Dilling told DW. "Cooperating with the AfD may just reinforce the criticism of ideological vicissitude that the CDU has been criticized for in the past years. This may help take into account the concerns of disappointed voters without, in turn, alienating voters at the center."