BERLIN – A pro-business politician was unexpectedly elected Wednesday as the governor of an eastern German state after a far-right party threw its votes behind him, a result that raises awkward questions for Germany's mainstream center-right parties.
Left-leaning parties assailed their rivals for allowing the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is particularly strong in the ex-communist east, to help put a center-right candidate in power in Thuringia state — the first time that has happened.
Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democrats, a party that only just secured enough support to enter the state legislature in an October election, threw his hat in the ring after left-wing incumbent Bodo Ramelow failed to secure a majority during two rounds of voting by lawmakers.
Kemmerich ousted Ramelow in a 45-44 vote, with one abstention. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the second-strongest party in Thuringia, fielded a candidate of its own but then ended up supporting Kemmerich in the final vote. Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats also backed him and did not field their own candidate.
The result drew withering criticism from left-leaning parties. Norbert Walter-Borjans, a leader of the Social Democrats — the junior partner in Merkel's national government — described it as “inexcusable" and “a scandal of the first order.” He pointed the finger at Kemmerich's party and the Christian Democrats, which are traditional allies.
Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also a Social Democrat, said in a tweet that Wednesday's events raise “very serious questions” for the national leadership of Merkel's party, “to which we demand quick answers.”
AfD's Thuringia branch has a particularly radical image and its regional leader, Bjoern Hoecke, has come under scrutiny from Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
The party entered Germany's national parliament in 2017, strengthened by the migrant influx of the previous two years. Polls show its national support steady at between 11-15%. Mainstream parties, particularly those on the right, have long struggled to find a way to push down its support, but their national leaders have been clear that they won't work with it.
The popular Ramelow had hoped to continue as state governor leading the same three-party, left-leaning coalition he headed for the past five years.
But that coalition lost its majority in the October election. That created a stalemate as no one wanted to form a coalition with AfD, and Merkel's Christian Democrats also wouldn't work with Ramelow's Left Party.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Kemmerich would be able to form a stable government. To a backdrop of heckling, he told lawmakers that “the firewalls against the extremes will stand.” He pledged to form a “competent and diverse” Cabinet and called on parties in the center to work with him. He said he would not make any offer to AfD.
Hoecke said that Thuringia had been “deformed into a left-wing state” under Ramelow and that had to be ended.
Kemmerich's election was greeted with reservations even by some in his own party, which is in opposition nationally but has been part of many past German governments.
A prominent federal lawmaker with his Free Democrats, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, tweeted that she personally appreciates Kemmerich “but allowing oneself to be elected by someone like Hoecke is unacceptable and intolerable among democrats.” There also was unease among many in Merkel's bloc.
The Christian Democrats' regional leader, Mike Mohring, said his party had supported Kemmerich as the center-right candidate and wasn't responsible for how other parties voted. He said he expects a “clear demarcation from AfD.”