Robert Möritz, a local politician from the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, surprisingly announced his resignation from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Friday, saying he wanted “to shield the party from further harm” and calm the political uproar. It recently emerged that Möritz had ties to Germany’s right-wing extremist milieu, and has a symbol tattooed on his arm associated with neo-Nazism. Möritz said his resignation was about sending a signal, and that “sometimes, life is about focusing on one’s true priorities.” He added that he nevertheless fully subscribes to the conservative CDU’s values.
News of Möritz’ links to Germany’s far-right milieu had brought Saxony-Anhalt’s government — a coalition between the CDU, center-left Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens — to the verge of collapse. On Thursday, the state’s CDU issued an ultimatum to Möritz, demanding that he distance himself from the far-right or face repercussions.
Will the CDU work with the far right?
The scandal surrounding Möritz, and what it means for politics in Saxony-Anhalt today, made national headlines. This is partially due to the state’s political history: Between 1994 and 2002, a Social Democrat-led minority government was in power in Saxony-Anhalt with tacit backing from the Party of Democratic Socialism, the legal successor to the party that had ruled East Germany. This arrangement became known as the Magdeburg model — named after Saxony-Anhalt’s capital.
Today, the state’s coalition government is led by the CDU. There is speculation that some figures within the CDU are considering taking inspiration from the Magdeburg model and teaming up with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Saxony-Anhalt’s current three-party coalition, after all, has had critics within the CDU ever since it was established back in 2016. Certain party members have repeatedly signaled their disdain for the Greens, in particular, and flirted with the AfD. While the CDU has ruled out any cooperation with the far-right at the national level, this did not deter leading Christian Democrats in Saxony-Anhalt from publishing a paper this summer calling for the party to open up to the AfD. Influential CDU politicians on the local level have expressed support for this model, and have insisted that an informal cooperation with the AfD should not be ruled out. Saxony-Anhalt’s AfD, in turn, is aiming to transform itself into a viable coalition partner.
Crisis meeting and ultimatum
Holger Stahlknecht, who heads the CDU in Saxony-Anhalt and for years has served as the state’s interior minister, rejects accusations that his party is drifting towards the far right. At a press conference, he insisted that Saxony-Anhalt’s CDU was “centrist.” He did, however, warn that if his party did not integrate its more conservative faction, it would switch allegiance and “join the AfD.” He also said the party must appeal to voters who support the AfD. The far-right party currently controls over 20% of the seats in Saxony-Anhalt’s state parliament, and is similarly strong across Germany’s other eastern states.
Stahlknecht’s press conference had been preceded by an emergency CDU meeting to address the Möritz scandal. The Greens had pressured the CDU to take action. The party had initially said it wanted to give Möritz “a second chance.” State Premier Rainer Haseloff attended the meeting as well, underscoring the severity of the crisis.
It was agreed that Möritz would be asked to distance himself from his past and publicly subscribe to the CDU’s core values at the party leadership’s next crisis meeting on December 28. Stahlknecht said that as a “minimum requirement” he would also have been expected to remove his controversial tattoo by then. The idea was to then decide on whether or not to launch proceedings to remove Möritz from the party — though local CDU figures were divided on the issue.
National party leadership keeps its distance
Such proceedings are complicated and take a long time to conclude. Germany’s political party laws make it easy for individuals to join but not be removed from parties. The national CDU branch deliberately refrained from getting drawn into the affair, with party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer insisting it falls within the remit of Saxony-Anhalt’s CDU alone.
However, the CDU’s national branch clarified that a candidate may only be removed if he or she is “a member of a competing party or political organization” and that local decision-makers alone can give the go-ahead for such formal proceedings, which rely on internal courts that allow individuals to contest their decision. The CDU also said an individual’s removal hinges on whether that person’s conduct “harmed” the party. No official figures on these proceedings exist, according to the CDU. But given Möritz’ resignation from the party on Friday, there is no longer a need for such a formal procedure.