BERLIN – The city of Erfurt, a quiet, chocolate-box town of around 200,000 inhabitants, is an unlikely epicenter for an earthquake that is shaking German politics to its post-war foundations.
Yet last week, the city was the scene of a political scandal that toppled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor and laid bare how the destructive tactics of the far-right are paralyzing traditional parties.
The election of a new state premier in Thuringia with the help of votes from the extremist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party broke a decades-old taboo on cooperation with the far right.
It also exposed the growing influence wielded by the AfD, which Merkel accused this week of wanting to “cripple democracy.”
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro single currency outfit, the party has grown and moved rightward over the last seven years and is now the largest opposition group in Germany’s lower house, the Bundestag.
They have been particularly successful in the former East Germany, picking up over 20 percent of the vote in a number of state elections.
Such results have made it more and more difficult for other parties to form coalitions, leading to situations such as the one in Thuringia.
The election of Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) party was the first time a state premier had relied on AfD votes to secure election.
Kemmerich, who was also supported by his own party and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), stepped down almost immediately in the face of nationwide outrage.
But the AfD have remained on the offensive.
They have even threatened to vote back into office the remaining viable candidate, former Premier Bodo Ramelow of the Left party, in order to force him too to resign and leave Thuringia without a workable coalition.
For Merkel, such tactics represent a threat to democracy itself.
According to reports in the German media, Merkel told lawmakers from her CDU party this week that she had forewarned Thuringian colleagues against falling for the AfD’s “tricks.”
“It is clear that (the AfD) wants to cripple democracy, to undermine democracy,” she said, adding that a cooperation with the party remained out of the question.
Yet the increasing influence of the AfD poses a threat to the chancellor’s legacy.
Her authority undermined by the Thuringia scandal, Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stepped down as party leader earlier this week and ruled out a bid for the chancellorship.
The question of how to deal with the AfD is now dominating the search for a new leader. Some potential candidates, such as former Merkel rival Friedrich Merz and health minister Jens Spahn, advocate a drift to the right to win back lost voters.
“Two CDU leaders have now failed in a short space of time because of the AfD,” wrote Der Spiegel website.
The party, it added, had become a “driving force” in German politics, despite polling only around 15 percent nationally.
The party’s strategy, dubbed “constructive destruction” by far-right theorist Goetz Kubitschek, continues to squeeze traditional parties across the country.
“The AfD’s strategy … is to establish itself as a party which is oppositional and critical of the system, in order to become interesting and attractive for people who are critical of democracy or even anti-democratic,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.
This was “counterproductive” for the AfD’s long-term goal of entering government, he said.
Yet the far right was disrupting German politics more broadly by “attacking the rules and norms which make up democratic political culture,” he added.
One of those norms is the long-standing culture of remembrance for Nazi crimes, which has come under fire from AfD politicians.
Though such attacks appall most voters, some fear that the AfD’s ability to paralyze the political system may soon be on show beyond the borders of sleepy Thuringia.
“I fear that in a few years, what is currently happening in Thuringia will be seen on a national level,” the CDU’s Wolfgang Bosbach told broadcaster NTV this week.
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“This was born out of the same reason I do what I do on Twitter. You want to try and help. You want to try and use the platform that you’ve been given the right way,” Evans said. “And this felt like it could cast the widest net because it actually removed my personal politics and just tried to offer information to people who may want to participate.”
The site is divided into three sections. One includes three Republicans and three Democrats answering questions about broad long-term issues like immigration, climate change, student debt and gerrymandering. The second allows politicians to upload solo messages about hot topics like Trump’s executive orders or TikTok ban. And a “counterpoints” section highlights moderated interparty debates: Should schools reopen during the pandemic? Should the government require mail-in voting?
The site is intended to educate, not advocate, Evans says. It’s built without incentives toward extremes. There are no view counters, like or dislike buttons, or comments sections. Some of the videos are fact-checked by an outside group.
“The reason for doing this site is to combat the proliferation of misinformation,” Evans said in an interview from his home in Boston. “A lot of the misinformation out there comes from individuals who have created these platforms and they pull snippets of information to places and create a narrative. And it’s a lot of conjecture. And you hope that the elected officials who are in office are the ones trying to cut through that.”
Evans, whose uncle served in Congress as a Democrat for a decade ending last year, says he and Kassen had to push hard to convince Republicans to participate. The 39-year-old actor had thrilled liberals early in Trump’s term, calling the president “Biff” and a “meatball.”
Kassen said Evans’ reputation left the pair with “a hill to climb” as the pair visited offices around the Capitol pitching their vision of an impartial online venue: “Our hard work and his charm allowed us to keep going. But for sure, there was a lot of bias against us because of that.”
Evans says he’s been pleased to see Republicans uploading more “daily points” videos to the site than Democrats in recent weeks.
As he prepares to potentially film a Netflix spy movie in January, the self-described “news junkie” says he’s tuned out the presidential campaign temporarily to focus on A Starting Point. His social media is mostly benign these days.
“It’s a measure of efficacy. How can you be of most good, of most service?” Evans said. “This site feels to me that it could have a broader impact than anything I could do on my individual Twitter.”
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Ryan Pearson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanwrd
Ryan Pearson, The Associated Press
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