Updated: Apr 10
Berlin Bulletin no. 168 October 29 2019 - Victor Grossman
Germany is really riding a rollercoaster these days, but this is no amusement park; there's lots of suspense but rarely joy - and quite a few politicians are very unwell! Not only politicians! Well then, who's climbing, who's plunging? Look quick - it's moving fast!
Heading screechingly downward are the two traditionally main parties: the so-called Christian Union (CDU), which has usually led the pack ever since the start-off in 1945 and, for years in close second place - its rival but increasingly unhappy partner in the current federal government, the Social Democrats (SPD).
Three states of former East Germany held elections in September and October. In Saxony the CDU, which has headed the state government there since German unification thirty years ago, still managed to stay in front, but with 32.1% and only a thin lead, it will have to take on not one but two coalition partners to form a government: the weak Greens (less than 9 %) and the truly sickly SPD (under 8 %). There is no love lost between the three - but also no likely alternative.
In neighboring Brandenburg it was the SPD which similarly stayed on top ever since 1990, but it had needed the LINKE (Left) as a junior partner to get the needed majority. In the September vote, in a parallel to Saxony, the top dog managed to stay on top, squeezing through with a skimpy 26.2%. But this time it decided to dump the diminished LINKE and turn instead to the Greens and Christians, cooking the same omelet as in Saxony but scrambled differently as to who's on top. And just as in Saxony, this will hardly be a jolly "three men in a tub" outing.
In Germany such "rub-a-dub-dub" trios are called "Kenya coalitions", though not due to any connection with East Africa. The parties here don't have four-legged logos like donkeys, elephants or maybe zebras, but rather colors, and red (SPD!), Green and the Christians' clerical black match the colors in the flag of Kenya. (Among other samples: a Jamaica coalition, with the colors of that country's flag, black, green and yellow, the chosen hue of the Free Democrats.)
On Sunday Thuringia voted. Record numbers went to the polls, about two-thirds of eligible voters, and handed out some stinging rebukes. The Christians, hitherto always the biggest vote-getters, were reduced to a miserable third place! The SPD, sagging worst of all on the national level, continued the slide here, as in Saxony, landing in the ranks of lesser parties with only a measly 8.3 %. In the customary post-election inquisitions of party leaders on TV, the SPD man seemed to wish to hide behind the curtains or even under the table, away from an embarrassingly sharp camera eye and sharp questions. A few other parties deserved far bigger headlines. Not the small big-business party, the Free Democrats, which won seats in the state parliament for the first time, with just exactly five voters pushing it past the required 5 % minimum. Alone the "Ja" ballot marks of its main candidate's six children may have done the trick (if they are of voting age). But truly frightening was the gain of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) which surged upwards and, as in the other two states, ascended into second place (with 23.4%). This party's head in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, is on the extremely furthest right in this far-right party, a man known for almost verbatim use of one-time Nazi phrases, dripping with hatred for Africans, Muslims, immigrants, Jews, leftists - and quick with barely-disguised threats about plans of his mob when they gain power. He had hoped to win even more votes and win first place - but could be more than satisfied with the doubling of his party's vote.
But, as if to countervail this threat, perhaps the loudest roller-coaster shouts - of joy from some, dismay from others - were reactions to the success of the LINKE, the Left! Its leader in Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, was since 2014 the first and only LINKE minister-president in all Germany. Winning this position then had been a sensation, reflected in much of the media almost as if a revived Joseph Stalin had seized this most centrally-located state in Germany. But despite their deprecations and evil predictions, life in Thuringia kept moving along quite peacefully, even managing to recuperate to a degree from the worst losses imposed on East Germany after unification ("annexation" or "colonization" as some called it). Many Thuringians found jobs commuting to neighboring, better-off, West German Bavaria and Hesse. Ramelow himself was also a "Wessie", a trade union leader and one of the very many who came over after 1990 to take charge in the East. But unlike so many of the others, he was a pleasant fellow, who always took his cute little dog with him, differed from most LINKE leaders, East or West, by going regularly to church, and managed to get along with the Social Democrats and Greens who defied taboos and surprised everyone by agreeing to join his cabinet as junior members, thus achieving a majority in the state parliament (the Landtag).
That was in 2014. Last Sunday his LINKE party was rewarded, moving up three percentage points to a sensational 31% of the vote, the best vote the LINKE ever achieved anywhere! No one could contest his right to remain premier.
But a very big problem remained. The LINKE won 29 seats in the 90-seat Landtag. But the weakened SPD has only 8 and the Greens just 5. The sum is 42, three short of 50 %. The rightist Free Democrats with their 5 seats will have nothing to do with such leftist radicals. So - what to do in this problem caused by now having six parties divvying up the results in most German elections?
There seem only two escapes from the horns of this dilemma, both highly unusual.
Bodo Ramelow may try to govern by cooperating with the Greens and SPD but without any regular government, dependent in each decision on the good will of enough delegates to push it through - and see how long that shaky attempt can hold out.
Or else, in a solution seemingly unthinkable until yesterday, by forming a coalition with the right-wing Christian Democrats whose added 21 seats would sum up to a solid 50.
The national leadership of the Christians, no longer headed by Angela Merkel but by her nervous, insecure successor, Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer (AKK), has sworn never ever to join with the awful AfD fascists or those even more awful LINKE Communists. But the local Christian leader, not so hard-bitten (and no doubt ambitious), has insisted that decisions on Thuringia must be made in its capital Erfurt, not in Berlin. The question is still up in the air.
Nationally, many are wobbling on this political rollercoaster ride. The Christians, more and more unhappy with AKK, are searching for someone with greater authority. The Social Democrats are tied up in the process of electing a new duo to lead them out of their rapid descent toward extinction. The Greens, after a year of intoxicating success, have been forced to greater sobriety by the meager returns in these three elections.
And the LINKE, saved from total desolation by this happy victory, still faces earnest questions on future direction and strategy. Bodo Ramelow, popular in Thuringia, represents the "moderate" wing within the LINKE, which, say some, caused disastrous losses in Saxony, Brandenburg and the European Parliament. In coming months the party will elect (or re-elect) leaders and debate future plans. With economic threats from Brexit looming ahead, while trade with Britain was always important, and with the European Union economy already far from stable. bumpy rides may well be expected.
Thuringia, scenically beautiful, with forested hills and historical, handsome old cities: Eisenach with its Wartburg Castle, where young Martin Luther, incognito, hid from Catholic threats (and translated the New Testament into colloquial German). And beautiful Erfurt, the capital, with many beautiful churches and a wonderful, famous staircase in its central square, also Jena, home of the optical Zeiss tradition. Then its particular gem, Weimar, famous for Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Cranach, Nietzsche, the Bauhaus and dozens of other poets, preachers, artists and great names - and the site where the ill-fated constitution of 1919 was decided upon, giving the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) its name.
Thuringia, ruled in 1923 by a Social Democratic-Communist united front, forcibly deposed after three weeks by soldiers of the Social Democratic-ruled central government, was also the first state in Germany to bring a Nazi minister into its government in 1930 and to grant Hitler German citizenship. Not far from beautiful Weimar was the frightful Buchenwald concentration camp where countless anti-fascists, resistance fighters, also many Jews and Soviet POWs lost their freedom and, so often, their lives. Thuringia has faced many a fateful roller-coaster ride - like all of Germany. One can hope that it experiences no further disastrous crashes.