Germany has suffered a political earthquake. What happened?

Far-right AfD becomes kingmaker in regional election, sending tremors through Berlin

So what’s going down in Germany?

Nothing short of a political earthquake that has shattered a post-war taboo. On Wednesday, with no warning, a mainstream German politician was elected into office with the support of far-right votes.

Who is the politician?

Thomas Kemmerich, the little-known 54-year-old head of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in the eastern state of Thuringia. In last October's state election, the FDP squeezed into the state parliament with just 73 votes to spare. After months of coalition talks, Kemmerich, head of a parliamentary party with just five seats, was minister president of the eastern German state.

How did he manage that?

With a mixture of luck and guile. On Wednesday's first two rounds of voting, outgoing premier Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party failed twice to get enough votes. On the third round Kemmerich put himself forward for election by the 90-seat state parliament. With his own MPs' votes and those of the party of Angela Merkel, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which nominated no candidate of its own, he had 26 votes.

Still 20 seats short of a majority. What happened then?

The 22 AfD parliamentarians in the state parliament shifted their votes en masse from their own candidate to Kemmerich. In the third voting round, where only a simple majority is required, the liberal politician finished first, one vote ahead of Ramelow, and was duly sworn in as minister president.


And this is significant because?

He accepted, as the price for power, votes from the AfD. It began life as a euro bailout protest party but has over time radicalised into a hard-right party with an increasingly influential far-right wing. Thuringia’s AfD, and its head Björn Höcke, is head of this far-right wing. He calls himself a “social patriot” while critics accuse him of flirting with Holocaust denial and relativising Nazi crimes. As minister president, critics warn, Kemmerich will be dependent on this extremist support to govern.

Why don’t other parties back the FDP man and shun the AfD?

Thuringia's outgoing coalition – Left, Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens – wanted to continue in office as a minority administration. Now they're so outraged that they've refused to work with Kemmerich in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. Amid spontaneous demos outside the parliament complex on Thursday, the local FDP and CDU parties were standing by Kemmerich and their political coup.

But after huge pressure from Berlin Kemmerich stood down on Thursday, saying "resigning is unavoidable . . . the AfD tried a trick yesterday to damage democracy,"

Why was Berlin involved?

Because the Thuringian tremor could crack the federal government. Until now a gentleman’s agreement existed among all other parties not to co-operate with, or allow support from, the AfD. Chancellor Merkel described Wednesday’s vote as “unforgivable” and has demanded the parliamentary decision be revoked. Her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has attacked her party colleagues in Thuringia for breaking their own internal party agreement to boycott the AfD.

Why doesn’t Kramp-Karrenbauer tell her Thuringian CDU colleagues to fall into line?

Because it’s not that simple. The rules of German federal politics give huge autonomy to state parties and party leaders – and that could prove the undoing of Kramp-Karrenbauer. Little more than a year in as CDU leader, she is struggling to impose her authority on the party. The SPD, junior grand coalition partner, has ordered AKK, as she’s widely known, to fix this fast. If AKK fails, the SPD says she will have proven herself to be a “queen without a kingdom”, putting the future of Berlin’s grand coalition in the balance.

And how is the AfD reacting to this?

With quiet triumph. After just seven years in business, it now sits in all of Germany's 16 state parliaments and is the largest opposition party in the federal chamber, the Bundestag. In Thuringia it is the second-largest grouping. While the local CDU and FDP fear a snap election, the wrath of other parties and of local voters, the AfD can sit back and watch the drama unfold.