Democracies don’t die overnight. They don’t flourish one day and then get uprooted by a coup d’etat the next. They decay gradually, until the ground is fertile for an authoritarian seizure of power.
And sometimes, like in the German state of Thuringia this week, democratic politicians play an active role in the demise of the very system they represent.
What happened in Thuringia this week — where a center-right politician was elected governor with the help of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — was a milestone for the AfD. It was the first time the party, which has been criticized for being extremist and at times openly anti-Semitic, has helped to elect the leader of a state government.
The election was a sign of the gradual decay of German democracy, even if a worst-case scenario appears to have been averted. Members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had long refused to engage in any way with the AfD, but in Thuringia, members of the CDU and those of another center-right party, the Free Democrats (FDP), were willing to accept the possibility that one of their candidates would be elected with votes from the AfD. The only thing that slammed the brakes on this madness was when party leaders in Berlin — eventually — intervened.
What remains is the embarrassment for mainstream conservatives, especially for CDU and FDP leaders in Berlin, who didn’t intervene soon enough. What remains is the fact that conservatives in Thuringia allowed themselves to be seduced by the AfD. What remains is a triumph for Björn Höcke, the right-wing extremist state leader of the AfD in Thuringia, who made those on the center-right look like fools. What remains is the damage caused to liberal democracy.
Every new attrition chips away at our democratic system. To stop this, what happened in Thuringia must be seen as a warning shot, a harbinger.