Did the CDU just work with the AfD?
Something pretty fascinating happened in a remote corner of Germany last week that went almost unnoticed by the outside world.
In the state parliament in Thuringia, the CDU worked with the far-right AfD to pass a motion ‘banning’ gender sensitive language in public institutions. As far as I can gather it is the first time that the CDU have cooperated with the AfD in a German parliament.
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The vote itself was pretty inconsequential. The CDU are not part of the state government in Thuringia meaning the motion, titled “Gendering: no thanks!” doesn’t have the force of law.
But it shows what the parties right of the centre can do when they team up. That’s because the CDU and AfD (plus a small right-wing splinter party called the Citizens of Thuringia) actually have more seats in the Thuringian parliament than the state’s left-wing government.
In theory, they could work together to block most of the state government’s programme while successfully passing their own counter motions. But the CDU leadership have made clear that they will never co-operate with the AfD.
When Friedrich Merz became party leader at the beginning of this year, he told Der Spiegel that: "We will be crystal clear with the regional CDU chapters, especially in the east, that anyone who raises their hand to cooperate with the AfD will face expulsion proceedings on the very next day."
Of course, there are good reasons for this stance. The AfD in the east are more extreme than in the West. Their party leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, is suspected of having close connections to the local neo-Nazi scene.
At the same time, this stance gives the CDU little room for maneouvre on the type of culture war issues that play well with its core voters. How does it get conservative legislation through in the east when making an alliance with the AfD is its only chance of finding a right-wing majority?
In last week’s vote on gendered language the CDU seemed to think they’ve found an answer: ignore what everyone else is doing. They claimed they were bringing in the motion to stop a project that is being pushed by an “elite minority.”
But it was clear that the AfD would vote with them - the AfD spokeswoman confirmed as much before the vote.
This has all led opponents to suspect that the CDU are preparing the groundwork for more extensive cooperation with the AfD in the future.
“It’s clear that the CDU in Thuringia have been preparing for cooperation with the AfD for years," the Green party secretary, Emily Büning, said.
Merz can “no longer stick his head in the sand” over developments in the east, Büning added. “Your party is working in broad daylight to make the AfD fascists acceptable in polite society,” she thundered.
Merz has, so far, not commented on the vote.
What has the reaction been?
The parties of the left are trying to turn this into a scandal, but it is nothing of the sort, writes Philip Eppelsheim in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Eppelsheim goes on:
“The CDU haven’t entered a coalition with right-wing extremists, which of course they must never do. They have merely done what one would expect of them - they have stood up for a conservative position… The real scandal would be if the CDU were to given up on a position just because they know the AfD supports it. They might as well just give up then.”
Writing in the left-wing Neues Deutschland, columnist Robert Meyer sees things differently. He points out that the CDU’s former leader in Thuringia, Mike Mohring, recently broke a taboo by proposing that the other parties stop “excluding” the AfD in the state parliament.
“This shows a gradually approach to beginning a black-brown (CDU-AfD) cooperation,” argues Meyer. “And what does Merz do? He stays silent instead of sticking to his word.”
It is important not to overstate this development. Crucially, what it is not is a CDU party in power working with the AfD to pass actual legislation - that would be a major taboo breach.
But if this type of behavior repeats itself it will normalise informal cooperation between the two parties in opposition. Given that the CDU want to win conservative votes on cultural issues, that is probably something that the national leadership will continue to turn a blind eye to.
There is a risk in doing so. Some centrist CDU voters will be turned off the party.
But for the Greens and other left-wing parties there is also a risk in accusing the CDU of ‘aping’ the AfD to appeal to their ‘fascist’ voters.
Polling shows that, regardless of age or political affiliation, Germans broadly don’t support changing the language to make it ‘gender sensitive’. Even among Green voters, slightly more people reject this linguistic novelty than agree with it.
The attack line, used repeatedly by the left in recent days, that the CDU are ‘fishing in brown waters’ (brown referring to the colour of Nazi SA uniforms) implies that people who reject gendered nouns are fascists. That is also not a voting-winning strategy.