The leader of Germany’s center-right opposition, Friedrich Merz, said on Sunday that his party may look to work together with the far right at the municipal level — indicating a potentially ground-breaking shift in German politics that immediately attracted sharp criticism.
Germany’s established parties have long rejected any cooperation with the far-right, anti-migration and climate change-denying Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which was founded 10 years ago and has in recent months risen to the second position in national polls.
But Merz told public broadcaster ZDF in an interview Sunday evening that his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may abandon this position, although he argued that this shift only applied at the local level.
“Local politics is different from state and federal politics,” Merz said in reaction to recent triumphs of the AfD at the local level in eastern Germany, such as in Sonneberg in Thuringia, where the AfD last month for the first time won a district council election.
Earlier this month, the AfD also for the first time won a mayoral election in Raguhn-Jeßnitz, in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
“Of course, that’s a democratic election. We have to accept that,” Merz said. “And of course we have to look for ways in the regional parliaments how we shape the city, the county, the regional district.”
Merz added, however, that he still rules out any cooperation of his CDU with the far-right AfD at regional state politics, at the federal level or in the European Parliament.
“There will be no participation of the AfD in a government,” Merz said.
Nevertheless, his argument of having to respect democratic decisions opens a backdoor to cooperation with the far right at other political levels as well — for example if the AfD gathered sufficient votes in upcoming state elections in eastern Germany next year.
Merz’s comments immediately sparked controversy as they indicate a substantial softening of his party’s long-proclaimed “firewall” against any cooperation with the far right. The CDU had repeatedly argued in party guidelines that “there will be no cooperation with the AfD — neither in direct nor in indirect form.”
The CDU premier of the regional Berlin state, Kai Wegner, took to Twitter to seemingly distance himself from his party leader’s remarks. “The AfD knows only opposition and division. Where is there supposed to be COOPERATION? The CDU cannot, doesn’t want to, and will not cooperate with a party whose business model is hate, division and exclusion,” Wegner wrote.
Green lawmaker Sara Nanni called Merz the “wrecking ball of democracy.”
Merz’s comments may further undermine his already lackluster standing as party leader and his ability to become the CDU’s lead candidate in Germany’s next general election in 2025.