BERLIN (Reuters) - German conservative leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Monday faced a rebellion by party members angry at a humiliating election result in eastern Thuringia state where the Christian Democrats (CDU) lost voters to both the far left and far right.
Discontent within the CDU grew louder after their fourth setback at the ballot box this year under Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has encountered mounting doubts about her suitability to lead the conservatives in the next federal election, due in 2021, since she became chairwoman in December.
The CDU dropped from first to third place in Thuringia, falling behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the far-left Linke party, which came first with just over 30% of the vote.
The inconclusive election has put the onus on the CDU to ditch its long-established policy of ostracizing the Linke, which conservative leaders deem the reincarnation of the Communist party that ruled East Germany until 30 years ago.
Thuringia’s Linke-led coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens lacks a majority to continue governing and needs the CDU on board for a stable coalition. All parties refuse to work with the AfD, which they accuse of racist rhetoric against Muslim migrants.
A poll published after the election in Thuringia on Sunday showed that more than 70% of CDU voters in the eastern state want their party to join a Linke-led coalition.
Mike Mohring, CDU leader in Thuringia, led the charge against his party’s position, saying it was up to him, and not Chancellor Angela Merkel or Kramp-Karrenbauer, to decide on a policy reversal that opens the door for a coalition with the Linke.
“I do not rule out talks with those who respect our constitution and want to build Thuringia with us,” Mohring told public broadcaster MDR. “I do not need Berlin for the question of how we can take responsibility for the sake of our state.”
But at a joint news conference in Berlin, Mohring and Kramp-Karrenbauer tried to play down their differences, struggling to hide the fact they had agreed to disagree on how to respond to an invitation for talks from Thuringia’s Linke premier Bodo Ramelow.
“The CDU leadership maintains that we stick to our decision not to cooperate with the Linke party or the AfD,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “Mike Mohring has said he wants to pursue these talks. This is a parliamentary matter of fact.”
Mohring defended his decision to pursue coalition talks with the Linke, saying he was bowing to voters’ wishes.
“If there is a new challenge that a centrist path is not possible we need to talk about what is possible for the region,” he said. “If the CDU were to reject all possibilities, then it would have forfeited its responsibility.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, has been weakened by gaffes and her failure to revive the conservatives’ fortunes at the ballot box. The party suffered painful losses at European Parliament elections in May and three votes in eastern Germany.
The election in Thuringia exposed deep polarization among German voters. The Linke and AfD together won more than half of the vote, leaving the CDU, the center-left SPD, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats with no majority.
Mass-selling Bild newspaper blamed the polarization on Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer’s centrist political path, which makes it difficult for voters to distinguish between the mainstream parties and pushes them to extremes.
“Angela Merkel and CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer could share a prize for causing the (voter) exodus that brought us here,” Bild wrote. “AKKatastrophe!”
Kramp-Karrenbauer was asked whether her future as party chairwoman and chancellor candidate in the next election was raised during the CDU meeting to discuss the Thuringia election.
“It was always the case that the CDU had the chancellor candidate and chairmanship in one person and there is a good reason for this because when this is not the case one feels the unrest which we are experiencing today,” she said.
“If some people think this question must be decided this autumn they have the chance to do so at our party congress,” she added, referring to a possible vote at the CDU congress in November on whether she should be chancellor candidate in 2021.
Additional reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Riham Alkoussa, Michelle Martin and Andreas Rinke, Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by Ed Osmond