Angela Merkel's militant liberalism won't stop the collapse of Germany's centre

Thomas Meaney
Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

Consider this, and in our time: a leftist political animal who thrives in one of the most hostile environments in contemporary Europe. After Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal and Mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona, Bodo Ramelow is arguably the most successful leftist leader in Europe. He was, until recently, the minister president of the east German state of Thuringia, where his leftwing party, Die Linke, has ruled in coalition with the Greens and Social Democrats for the past six years, and kept both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the far right at bay. In a parliamentary election in October Die Linke won more votes than any other – 31% – the first time in German history that Die Linke has performed so well at the state level. But Ramelow’s coalition partners suffered losses, leaving him with the prospect of running a minority government or entering talks with other parties.

A political coup in any state would make for a country-wide frenzy. But the ousting of Ramelow was particularly galling

A political coup in any German state would make for a countrywide political frenzy. But the ousting of the popular Ramelow this month by the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberals (FDP), acting in concert with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), was particularly galling. With a margin of only one vote, they removed Ramelow as minister-president and replaced him with an obscure West German liberal, Thomas Kemmerich, whose party has a minuscule five seats in the Thuringian parliament. In a country that prides itself on honouring political taboos, the apparent coordination between conservatives and the AfD cut through the cordon sanitaire that has long forbidden mainstream parties from working with the far right. It didn’t help that the Thuringian AfD brand is home to the most outspoken white nationalist in German politics, Björn Höcke, who greeted Kemmerich in a scene that political pundits compared to Paul von Hindenburg shaking hands with Hitler almost 100 years earlier, nor that their machinations were closely followed by a shooting involving a rightwing fanatic.

When Ramelow first took office, in 2014, there were protests on the streets of the Thuringian capital, Erfurt, against his “Stalinism”. But in the following years, support for him deepened. Ramelow, who had strong union credentials, was descended from a long line of Protestant ministers in West Germany, and was adept at forging alliances. The backbone of his anti-fascist firewall came from Communist voters for the East German SED (Socialist Unity) party, but he had expanded his appeal well beyond.

Like a shrewd leftwing pastor, he delivered popular policies to his flock: expanding state-funded childcare, hiring more teachers and providing more subsidies for students. He has hired more police, but also abolished local branches of the German intelligence services, known for their rightwing sympathies. His endearingly gruff manner on TV won him fans across Germany, and he wisely avoided the factional struggles inside his party. One of his first acts in office was to apologise for crimes committed by the Communist East German state. When his rightwing critics demanded that he go further and declare the East German Communist state an Unrechtsstaat, Ramelow drew a line in the sand. He made a rigorous case for why he would not be using the same definition for the German Democratic Republic that the German Jewish judge Fritz Bauer at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials had applied to Nazi state.

The plot to unseat Ramelow in Thuringia was embarrassing for Chancellor Merkel. She appeared to have temporarily lost control of a local branch of her party, and her designated replacement for the chancellorship, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, nominal secretary of the CDU, promptly resigned in the wake of the chaos. Merkel and the FDP’s head, Christian Lindner, will succeed in reversing the result of the election and disciplining their rogue members. More interesting is the message that the local Thuringian CDU wanted to send back to Berlin. For years the branch has looked with envy at Austria, where the conservative chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was able to form a strong coalition with the far-right Freedom party in 2017. As it was in the 20th century, Austria remains a critical laboratory for rightwing gene-splicing. The Thuringian CDU wanted to show Berlin that it has options on the menu besides coalitions with Social Democrats or the Greens, and to protest against what the party sees as the inevitable future of “system Merkel”.

Bodo Ramelow, former minister-president of Thuringia. When he first came into power there were protests about his ‘Stalinism’. Photograph: Martin Schutt/AP

What is this future? Having shifted the centre of German politics well to the left of where the CDU was before her, Merkel has progressively absorbed elements of her coalition partners’ platforms. The Social Democrats have been bled dry, and the party is virtually indistinguishable from Merkel’s own. In search of a new partner, Merkel appears to have selected the Green party as a suitable candidate for CDU coalition. She has prepared the CDU well for the alignment, and adopted parts of the Greens’ environmental agenda. She will be leaving behind a party that is carefully calibrated to capture the median German voter, however much this pares away the distinctive features of the CDU.

More than other major parties in the west, Germany’s political centre has redoubled its commitment to militant liberalism. After a decade of political rupture – the financial crisis, anti-austerity movements and the growth of the far-right in European member states – its belief in the longevity of free-trade globalisation, the eurozone, liberal political norms and fiscal austerity remains unshakable.

It has long been fashionable to declare that Germany has resisted the type of political implosions seen in France, where Macron’s En Marche has arisen from the rubble of decimated parties. But Merkel has quietly been assembling what amounts to a new party. Her CDU barely resembles the conservative party of its predecessors. It has become so vague and expansive that it can simultaneously attract German professionals, immigrants and xenophobic farmers.

Some of Merkel’s fiercest detractors from within her own party, such as Wolfgang Schäuble and Friedrich Merz, want the CDU to return to its former, conservative principles. Merz is the sort of CDU man who in 1997 voted against the criminalisation of marital rape. Schäuble would even be content to run a minority government – until recently an unimaginable horror for Germany’s political class – if it meant safeguarding his reactionary principles.

But if the post-Merkel power struggle is won by one of her antagonists, such as Merz, the CDU’s wide appeal and flexibility would be greatly reduced. The war for its future is between social conservatives focused on the domestic economy, who are tired of making compromises with the left and want a throwback like Merz, and Merkel loyalists with the big German cities and giant export markets in their sights, who want to maintain the well-oiled status quo.

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For Germany’s left, the preferable successor to Merkel might be Merz, whose diehard principles would diminish the CDU’s electoral prospects and clear the way for a red-green coalition In Hamburg, the incumbent red-Green coalition recently returned to power with 58% of the vote, with Die Linke gaining in the polls and seeing off the AfD. In Berlin the current red-red-Green coalition polls at 60%. These may not be representative cities, but then nor is Thuringia, where even the CDU has agreed to temporarily return Ramelow to his pastorate.

Ramelow has only become more popular since October 2019. Support for the CDU has fallen from 19% to 14% since his expulsion, while Die Linke’s is at 40%. Unlike the far-right AfD, Die Linke could have a future as a competitive national party. The antagonists to Merkel’s right, who hope soon to inherit her ersatz centre, may well be in the unconscious process of making the Bodo less of an endangered species.

• Thomas Meaney is a historian and writer