BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday fired a government official whose congratulating of a state governor elected with a far-right party’s help angered Merkel’s coalition partners.
Christian Hirte, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who was the government’s commissioner for the formerly communist east and a deputy economy minister, tweeted that he resigned after Merkel told him he could no longer do the job. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, confirmed his dismissal.
Hirte’s departure is the latest fallout from the shock election Wednesday of pro-business politician Thomas Kemmerich as governor of the eastern state of Thuringia. The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, enabled it by supporting him in a vote in the state legislature — as did the regional branch of Merkel’s CDU, against the wishes of its national leadership.
Kemmerich’s acceptance of AfD’s votes appalled left-leaning parties and many in his own center-right camp. Merkel called his election “inexcusable.” The politician from the small Free Democrats announced the day after he was elected that he planned to step down, though it isn’t yet clear when that will happen or whether the state will hold a new election.
Hirte, a deputy leader of the CDU’s Thuringia branch who sits in the national parliament, had congratulated Kemmerich on his “election as a candidate of the center,” tweeting that it showed the state had voted out its previous left-wing government, and making no mention of AfD’s role.
The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel’s junior partners in her often-tense national governing coalition, said Hirte couldn’t stay in his job.
Politicians said accepting votes from AfD broke a taboo and was unacceptable.
Coalition leaders were meeting Saturday to discuss the Thuringia mess, which has prompted new criticism of the leadership of Merkel’s successor as CDU chairwoman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Merkel has vowed that her party will never work with the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant AfD, on a regional or national level.
Kemmerich, from the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), said Thursday: “We want new elections to remove the stain of the AfD’s support from the office of the premiership.”
Thousands took to the streets in cities across Germany late Wednesday to vent their dismay at the vote outcome, including in Berlin, Frankfurt and Thuringia’s capital Erfurt.
Some carried signs that read “Never again,” while others recalled that it was in Thuringia in 1930 that a Nazi minister was first allowed into government.
The aftershocks of the crisis were being felt in Berlin too, since Thuringian state lawmakers from Merkel’s own CDU lined up with the FDP and far right in voting for Kemmerich over popular incumbent Bodo Ramelow from the far-left Die Linke.
Merkel called Wednesday’s vote “a bad day for democracy” and said the role played by her local allies “broke with the values and convictions of the CDU.”
In states across Germany’s former communist east, the AfD is a major political force and mainstream parties are increasingly scrambling to keep it locked out of the corridors of power.
In Thuringia, the AfD is led by Bjoern Hoecke, one of the party’s most radical figures who has called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s atonement for Nazi crimes.
A picture of Hoecke shaking hands with Kemmerich after the election win was splashed across the front pages of several German newspapers.
“The handshake of shame,” screamed best-selling daily Bild, slamming Kemmerich for “letting himself be elected by a neo-Nazi.”
On social media, the picture was quickly twinned with one of Adolf Hitler shaking hands with German president Paul von Hindenburg in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor.
Since its creation in 2003, the AfD has gone from strength to strength in Germany, capitalizing on anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow in over a million Middle Eastern asylum seekers.
At the last general election, the party scored almost 13 percent nationwide and won its first seats in the German parliament.
The SPD’s leader Norbert Walter-Borjans warned that the world was watching how Germany was dealing with the rise of the far right and the “breach in the dam” in Thuringia.
“What has happened here is a signal that we can’t allow to go unanswered,” he said.