The politician who was elected leader of the east German state of Thuringia with the votes of a far-right party has stood down after just 24 hours and called for new elections, in an attempt to defuse a crisis that has shocked the country.
“My resignation is unavoidable, the dissolution of this parliament is unavoidable, and that’s what we decided today,” Thomas Kemmerich said after Angela Merkel, the chancellor, described his election as a “bad day for democracy” in Germany and called for it to be annulled.
She was objecting to the fact that Mr Kemmerich’s candidacy had been backed by the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), making him the first politician in the country’s postwar history to come to power thanks to the support of a hard-right party.
It marked a decisive break with the German political establishment’s long-held tradition of ostracising parties such as the AfD, which has alarmed moderates across the country with its anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric.
Ms Merkel’s comments underscored the fury that Wednesday’s events in Thuringia provoked in Berlin and the dismay over the far-reaching precedent it set.
Much of the outrage was focused on Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in Thuringia. A firebrand whom even people in his own party have likened to Joseph Goebbels, he has been linked in the past to Germany’s neo-Nazi movement.
Mr Kemmerich, local leader of the liberal Free Democrats, was elected by an alliance of the AfD, FDP and Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The chancellor described the CDU’s role in the affair as “inexcusable”.
She said the local party had broken with the CDU’s “fundamental belief” that “you don’t win a majority with the help of the AfD”.
In Erfurt, the Thuringian regional capital, protesters held up signs saying: “CDU & FDP — useful idiots of the Höcke fascists.”
On Wednesday Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democrat leader, said she had urged her party comrades in Thuringia not to vote alongside the AfD but they had ignored her appeals.
Some commentators said the CDU’s act of insubordination in Thuringia highlighted Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s failure to stamp her authority on the party. She was long considered odds-on favourite to succeed Ms Merkel as chancellor, but after a series of gaffes last year her poll ratings collapsed.
“The fact that people in the east German CDU are now openly flirting with the AfD shows that she has failed to unite the party,” said Manfred Güllner, head of pollsters Forsa. “She was already at a nadir, and now this.”
Andrea Römmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Government in Berlin, said Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had “lost her authority”. “What competence has a party leader who excludes any co-operation with the AfD and is then made to look such a fool by a [CDU] regional parliamentary group? None,” she wrote in Der Spiegel.
Thuringia has for the past five years been ruled by a coalition of the far-left Die Linke party, the left-of-centre Social Democrats and the Greens. But in regional elections last October this “red-red-green” coalition lost its majority.
The popular prime minister, Bodo Ramelow, of Die Linke, sought to stay in power at the helm of a minority government. He was widely expected to be re-elected as prime minister in the third and final round of voting in the local parliament on Wednesday when Mr Kemmerich unexpectedly announced his candidacy and beat him by one vote.
Critics of the election pointed to the fact that Mr Kemmerich’s party had barely scraped into parliament in October, winning just 73 votes above the 5 per cent threshold for representation. It has only five of the 90 MPs in the regional assembly.
The events in Thuringia have been highly embarrassing for the FDP and its national leader Christian Lindner, who is under pressure over the party’s poor poll ratings. There was a noisy demonstration outside FDP headquarters in Berlin on Wednesday evening, with protesters accusing the party of “getting into bed with fascists”.
Mr Lindner, who has led the Free Democrats for the past two-and-a-half years, said he would table a vote of confidence in himself at a hastily convened meeting of the FDP party executive on Friday.