How the CDU wants to deal with the AfD – and what experts say about it


As of: April 12, 2024 12:35 p.m

When state politicians duel on television before elections, Berlin is usually of little interest. Things were different in the duel between Voigt and Höcke. The parties are looking nervously towards East Germany.

After duels, grades are distributed and winners are chosen – this time too. And yet everything is different. Because the question is, was there anything to win at all? The Thuringian AfD leader Björn Höcke didn’t have to win. He wanted the stage – the duel at eye level at prime time.

And CDU state chairman Mario Voigt could only choose between two bad options. When he talks to Höcke, he gives him the stage. If he doesn’t talk, then the AfD basks in the role of victim. Voigt has decided to speak. And that was risky.

A risk that many in the Union were also aware of. Many people gather on social networks for public viewing. A few minutes after the duel, the “Union Bubble” meets for an audio discussion on Network X.

The deputy CDU chairwoman Karin Prien admits that she was nervous and asked herself whether she would sit on a stage with fascists. And she praises the Thuringian CDU leader for his “courage”: “Mario Voigt took a big risk for his country, but he did it right.”

Not everyone is full of praise

Secretary General Carsten Linnemann tells the Rheinische Post that Voigt has shown that he can be prime minister. “His courageous course to confront the right-wing extremists in terms of content has proven to be spot on.”

Even before the duel, Linnemann had defended the Thuringian CDU leader Voigt against criticism. It’s not enough to just talk about firewalls, “but we have to deal with the content of this party.” The AfD is looking for its channels – via networks like TikTok, “where it simply says its statements without contradiction. And it is better that we expose this contradiction. Publicly – in terms of content, than just let it go like that.”

But not everyone is full of praise. David Begrich has been observing right-wing extremism in East Germany for many years. The duel was a mistake, says the social scientist from Magdeburg: “I believe that what I honestly feared happened. Namely, that this duel will literally help Björn Höcke to trivialize himself .”

Not a “game changer”

Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, says that we can learn from the duel that such a format also allows us to normalize right-wing extremist positions. And that’s exactly what the AfD wants.

But a substantive debate with the right-wing extremist party could be definitely worthwhile, said Reuschenbach. Many people want that, they think it’s right. “But I would also warn against giving such events too much weight in retrospect.” Such duels are not a “game changer”.

Mario Voigt is state leader and top candidate of the Thuringian CDU. He says it clearly that he wants to be the strongest force in the elections on September 1st. But so far the AfD is leading in the polls, according to infratest dimap it is at 29 percent, followed by the Union with 20 percent. Left and the newly founded Sahra Wagenknecht alliance follow with 16 and 15 percent respectively.

Voigt believes that he can catch up – and he does not see the incumbent Prime Minister from the Left, Bodo Ramelow, as the most important opponent. But Björn Höcke, a right-wing extremist. A man who is currently back in court because he is said to have used a banned SA slogan in a speech.

Björn Höcke

The Thuringian AfD state leader Björn Höcke has already been accused of incitement on several occasions. For this reason, his immunity as a member of the state parliament has already been lifted eight times.

Currently there is Investigations by the Halle public prosecutor’s office, because Höcke is said to have used a slogan of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary fighting organization of the NSDAP, that was banned in Germany at a meeting. From April 18th, Höcke will have to answer before the regional court in Halle.

Because of a post on Telegram, an indictment was also admitted at the Mühlhausen regional court on charges of incitement to hatred. The Meiningen Administrative Court also decided in September 2019, that based on his statements and publications it is permissible to describe Björn Höcke as a fascist.

“I wouldn’t give this party a platform”

In the duel, the former history teacher Höcke says that he did not know that this slogan was forbidden. He also allegedly cannot remember what he wrote in his book about Bundestag Vice President Aydan Özoğuz.

All of this is on prime time television and Voigt has to do something about it. Some people had warned him about this level of equality – including in his own party. Saxony-Anhalt’s Prime Minister Reiner Haseloff told “Zeit”: “I wouldn’t give this party a platform.” There would be smart people who would warn against such a duel. Because it puts right-wing extremist ideas on an equal footing and presents Höcke as a “serious alternative”.

“Fatal signal”

Voigt decided differently. It’s easy to call Höcke a fascist, he says. For him, it’s about providing the AfD’s top candidate with content. The discussion was avoided for ten years. It didn’t achieve anything. This was mostly well received in the Union, but wild theories soon began circulating in the AfD bubble. Voigt knew the questions beforehand. The piece of paper lying on the desk in front of him proves this.

All of this leads to the question: Can the Union win with such a duel? Right-wing extremism expert Begrich says no. “I’m afraid it’s not about winning and losing, but rather about range and sovereignty of interpretation.” In the end, the message for Begrich remains that Björn Höcke is a completely normal politician like other democratic politicians. “And I honestly think this signal is fatal.”

Political scientist Reuschenbach says the CDU must offer concrete solutions for Thuringia. There was very little about state politics in the duel.

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