‘Lack of leadership’: Merkel under fire after far-right gains in regional German election

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces renewed pressure from within her Christian Democrats after the centre-right party was beaten by the populist, far-right AfD in the Thuringia state election on Sunday.

'Lack of leadership': Merkel under fire after far-right gains in regional German election
The pressure is on Angela Merkel after the Thuringia vote. Photo: DPA

Her conservative critics charge that Merkel has dragged the CDU too far to the left on immigration, climate and other issues, allowing the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the extreme right.

A long-time rival who hopes to succeed Merkel, Friedrich Merz, suggested the veteran leader dubbed “Mutti” (mummy) is already a lame duck and should bow out long before she plans to leave politics in 2021.

In his most direct attack yet, 63-year-old Merz said that “for years the chancellor's inactivity and lack of leadership have covered this country like a blanket of fog.

“I simply cannot imagine that this kind of governance will last another two years in Germany,” said Merz, an executive of the German arm of US investment firm BlackRock.

'Barely heard or seen'

Merkel, in power for almost 14 years, has faced heightened pressure ever since 2015 when she decided to keep open German borders to a mass influx of refugees and migrants.

The move earned her much praise but also sparked an angry backlash that fuelled the rise of the anti-immigration and anti-Islam AfD, now the biggest opposition party.

READ ALSO: What does the far-right AfD's success in Thuringia mean for Germany?

Björn Höcke, chairman of the AfD in Thuringia celebrating after the vote. Photo: DPA

In recent months it has topped 20 percent in three state polls in the ex-communist east — most recently Sunday when it narrowly beat Merkel's CDU in Thuringia to second spot behind the far-left Die Linke.

It was the CDU's worst ever result there and seemed to echo the demise of Germany's other mainstream party, the Social Democrats (SPD), which scored just nine percent.

News website Spiegel Online asserted that the state election showed that “the state of the CDU is at least as desolate” as that of the SPD.

READ ALSO: AfD surges to second place in Thuringia state election

The big difference for now was that the CDU remains the party of the chancellor, it said, adding however that “this could easily be missed given that Angela Merkel is barely heard or seen these days”.

'Something must change'

It was after a similar state poll setback last year that Merkel dramatically handed over the CDU leadership to her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known by her initials AKK.

Friedrich Merz and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer earlier this year. Photo: DPA

AKK in a later vote beat Merz for the party chair's position and more recently also took on the post of defence minister, but in recent months her political star has dimmed.

Doubts about AKK have grown after several blunders and gaffes, including a spat with a YouTube personality, a joke about intersex people and a surprise proposal for a peacekeeping mission to Syria that sparked open discord within
the cabinet.

Tilman Kuban, head of the CDU's youth wing, which leans towards Merz, this week openly asked whether AKK is the right candidate to lead the party.

Another critic who took aim at both Merkel and her crown princess was parliamentary group co-leader Axel Fischer, who called the latest defeat “thelogical consequence of national CDU policies that seems to lack any substance”.

An outsider, the Free Democrats' co-leader Wolfgang Kubicki, put it more bluntly, declaring that Kramp-Karrenbauer simply “lacks the stature” to lead the CDU or run for chancellor.

Things are likely to come to a head toward the end of the year, when the SPD will decide whether to stay in Merkel's coalition or leave, which could spark new elections.

Before then, the CDU will face their own fireworks, at a party congress in late November.

Merz has so far held his fire against AKK, preferring to attack the government as a whole.

“The image of the government is simply abysmal,” he thundered this week, demanding that “something must change”.

By Yacine Le Forestier

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Germany’s Scholz looks to quell coalition divisions

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will battle on Sunday to put out the fires threatening his government as the three-way coalition meets for crisis talks on a growing series of disputes.

Germany's Scholz looks to quell coalition divisions

A little more than a year after taking office, the relationship between Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and his governing partners, the Greens and the pro-business FDP, looks more strained than ever.

Earlier this week, Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck of the Greens accused his coalition partners of blocking progress, while the FDP’s deputy chief Wolfgang Kubicki compared the Green politician to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kubicki later apologised but the damaging row underlines the state of the three-way coalition — the first in Germany’s post-war history.

The alliance got off to a good start in December 2021 under the motto of their coalition agreement — “Dare for more progress”.

It was put to a tough test when Russia invaded Ukraine just two months on, upending decades of German economic and political certainties.

But tensions have since soared — particularly between the Greens and the FDP.

The two are unnatural bedfellows, with the former set on environmental commitments to phase out nuclear energy and combustion engines, and the latter promoting very different economic policies.

“Everywhere you look in the government there are fires,” German magazine Der Spiegel said, with the partners wrangling over priorities and struggling for compromises.

Boiling over

It could not be “that in a coalition of progress only one coalition partner is responsible for progress and the others for preventing progress”, Habeck said at a Green party event during the week.

Sunday’s talks would be a good opportunity to “overcome blockages” on key issues, Habeck also told broadcaster ARD, blasting the coalition’s record and policy leaks.

At the root of Habeck’s discontent is a controversial project put forward by his ministry to ban the installation of new oil and gas boilers from 2024 — a year earlier than previously planned.

The accelerated move from fossil fuels to greener technologies such as heat pumps would be accompanied by a multi-billion-euro package of financial support for switchers, Habeck has promised.

But the idea has caused ructions within the coalition, with critics underlining the costs involved.

“The plans must go back to the drawing board and be fundamentally revised,” Finance Minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner said after a policy draft was leaked to German daily Bild.

Habeck’s determination had something in common with Putin, Kubicki said. Both, he declared, had “a similar belief that the state, the leader, the chosen one, knows better than the people what is good for them”.

As tempers frayed, SPD general secretary said the partners needed to “find a new way of working”.

“This is an appeal to all three parties in government — these public arguments must stop now,” he said.

‘Explosive material’

The boiler bust-up is only one item on a growing list of disagreements, including pension reform, child benefits and cuts to red tape.

The parties agreed in their coalition agreement to speed up the approval process for key projects to revitalise Germany’s creaking infrastructure.

But while the FDP would like to see support for more new motorways, the Greens want to privilege more climate-friendly projects.

The FDP have also rallied opposition against European Union plans to ban cars with internal combustion engines from 2035, finally wringing a compromise solution out of Brussels on Saturday despite Green scepticism.

Spending demands from across government — including more money for Germany’s sclerotic armed forces — have made the maths harder for the finance minister.

Lindner, who has insisted on a return to Germany’s strict constitutional spending limits, was forced earlier in March to push back the publication of spending plans for 2024 due to a lack of agreement.

Divisions over the budget threaten to bring an end to the coalition, if Scholz fails to back his finance minister, political scientist Juergen Falter told Bild.

Much of the coalition’s discord could be traced back to the fact that “the ideas of the Greens and the FDP simply do not fit together”, he said.

Bringing their opposing views together was always going to be difficult, according to Falter.

“Three-way alliances automatically have more explosive material,” he said.