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Lessons from Thuringia

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 November 2019

Until last week, the East German state of Thuringia was internationally most famous as the home of Martin Luther, Thuringian roasted sausages and the Bauhaus Movement.

Now we can add last Sunday’s state election result to that list. Though expected, it was sensational.

The combined share of all established democratic parties dropped to just over 40% of the vote. They include the Christian Democrats (21.8%), the Social Democrats (8.2%), the Greens (5.2%) and the Liberals (5.0%).

The two big winners, meanwhile, were both extremist parties: The former communist ruling party of East Germany, which now calls itself The Left (31.0%); and the far-right Alternative for Germany (23.4%).

The democratic centre has been hollowed. The election was won by the extremes of the left and the right.

It is a result which could leave Thuringia ungovernable. Though the Social Democrats and the Greens governed with The Left for the past five years, they have now lost their parliamentary majority. No other party will work with The Left. Meanwhile, no party is prepared to cooperate with the far-right.

The practical consequences of the Thuringian election are limited to the state itself. The political repercussions, however, will be felt more widely. There are even some lessons for us in New Zealand.

Straight after German unification, Thuringia had a surprisingly conventional political landscape. Surprisingly because after the collapse of communism, democratic parties had to be established from scratch. The combined share of mainstream parties in the first state election in 1990 was 84% – more than twice their share now.

Over the past decades, Thuringia did well economically. Since the beginning of the century, unemployment fell from 15% to 5% today. The state is among the fastest-growing in Germany.

So why, then, this collapse of the political mainstream?

It is best explained by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s repositioning of her Christian Democrats. Under her leadership, the party shifted left. This robbed the Social Democrats of issues and left more conservative-leaning voters homeless.

When Merkel then opened Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees and other migrants in 2015, these abandoned voters found a home for their protest on the extremes. Each vote for them was a vote against Merkel’s mainstream.

Thuringia shows what happens when a globalist, cosmopolitan worldview is foisted on ordinary people without care for their daily concerns. The result is an ugly form of extremist politics we would not want to see repeated here.

To prevent the rise of polarisation, politicians must listen to people who think unlike themselves.

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