Three days later, Julian Degen is still a little stunned. “I felt empty,” he says, nursing a coffee in the Left party’s Erfurt office, which doubles as a youth club called RedRoxx. “And then I was just angry.”
Degen is assistant to the local Left party leader Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, the Thuringian socialist who became briefly famous on Wednesday when she flung a bunch of flowers in disgust at the feet of Thomas Kemmerich, the Free Democrat (FDP) politician, who eventually lasted just three days as state premier of Thuringia.
Her frustration was palpable at the desolate gathering at RedRoxx in the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote. “I’ve never seen Susi like that,” Degen says.
Dozens of Left party supporters had gathered here to console each other after witnessing their worst nightmare: Not only had their candidate, the incumbent state premier Bodo Ramelow, been defeated, but for the first time since 1945, a mainstream German political party had collaborated with a far-right party to get their candidate elected.
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Strange atmosphere in Erfurt
Hennig-Wellsow’s gesture of outrage in the chamber was reflected in the spontaneous demonstration that appeared on the steps of parliament even as Kemmerich was giving his acceptance speech inside.
That protest, attended by over 1,000 people, also felt unique, according to Degen. “It’s so hard to get people on the streets in Erfurt,” the activist said. “But on Wednesday, I talked to people who would never normally go to a demo. People just walked out of work to join us.” Even the police, usually tough on protests outside parliament, acted with unusual understanding, he said.
Despite so much anger being directed at the FDP, for the Left party, the biggest disappointment was the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). If only five Thuringian parliamentarians from Angela Merkel’s party had abstained, Kemmerich would not have been elected, sparing him and his party leader Christian Lindner, not to mention CDU head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a week of turmoil that has seriously damaged all their positions. In the event, just three CDU delegates abstained, so Kemmerich won by one vote.
“Right until the end we hoped there would be people in the CDU who under no circumstances would make common cause with the AfD,” said Katja Maurer, Left party state parliament member, who spent the dramatic night dividing her time between the fractious parliamentary session, heated party meetings, and the angry demo outside. “I’ve never seen so many people cry because of an election, including me.”
When the moment came, “it was a shock because we realized that our position, believing that the CDU still had a spark of democratic will, was naïve,” she told DW. The Erfurt CDU, like all the other parties represented in Thuringia’s parliament except the Left party, did not respond to DW’s request for an interview on Saturday.
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The popular premier: Bodo Ramelow
For others in Erfurt, Wednesday’s vote was all the more bitter because it may yet mean the end of the Ramelow era. The Left party’s outgoing state premier established a reputation as a competent governor: his personal ratings, sometimes over 60%, show that his popularity extends well beyond the state’s Left party base.
Ramelow’s defeat was one reason why Suleman Malik, spokesman for the Ahmadiyya mosque, joined the demo on Wednesday, along with other members of Erfurt’s small Muslim community.
“It’s shameful when, out of power interests and political strategy, a democratic vote is used to accomodate anti-democratic parliamentarians,” he told DW. “Of course we took to the streets, because we saw that these enemies of democracy were threatening our basic democratic order. For me, it was a slap in the face for democracy, what happened here.”
Ramelow’s signals in support of religious freedom were vital to Malik, whose reformist brand of Islam is not accepted in Pakistan and many Arab nations. One of the few openly practicing Christians among Left party leaders, Ramelow showed his solidarity in November 2018, when, in the face of far-right protests, the state premier showed up to lay the foundation stone for the Ahmadiyya mosque.
The first ‘visible’ mosque
The Ahmadiyya community is now hoping to open the place this summer. According to Malik, it will be eastern Germany’s first “visible” mosque outside Berlin, that is, the first free-standing mosque with a minaret and a dome.
“This is important, so we can show we are part of society, and people can come and meet Muslims,” Malik says, standing at the mosque’s construction site on Saturday. “This is exactly the kind of place where prejudice can be broken down.”
For Malik, this week’s events, Ramelow’s defeat and the AfD’s influence it highlighted, have a direct bearing on the mosque and the open society it represents. The small half-built structure is the result of a 15-year struggle: the process of collecting the donations, finding the land, and gaining planning permission were all dragged out by local resistance, one way or another.
Even now, the prejudice is having a real effect: Malik says construction was delayed by six months because some firms refused the contract for fear of hostility. “And that fear is stirred up by anti-democratic forces in parliament,” said Malik.
But it was worth it. “We are seeing that there is an increase in the community again,” said Malik. “People are coming back to Erfurt because they are seeing that there is a place for Muslims to meet.”
“There were protests, yes,” he adds, before matter-of-factly mentioning the pig cadavers dumped at the site, as well as the regular death threats and abuse he receives online as the Ahmadiyya community’s most prominent member. “But there were also a lot of supporters. People fought with us, they took to the streets.”