Germany’s highest court has censured Angela Merkel for intervening in a regional election in 2020, in an embarrassing blow to the former chancellor six months after she retired from politics.
The constitutional court ruled on Wednesday that comments Merkel made at a press conference in South Africa in February 2020 had harmed the right of the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to “participate in political competition on an equal footing” and infringed the “fundamental principle of neutrality” that state officials should abide by.
A spokesperson for Merkel said that “she naturally respects the constitutional court’s decision”.
The case has its roots in a crisis in the east German state of Thuringia at the start of 2020 in which one of the main principles of Germany’s postwar political consensus — that mainstream parties should not collaborate with far-right ones — was broken.
At that time, the Christian Democrats (CDU) colluded with the far-right AfD to get a little-known local politician called Thomas Kemmerich elected as Thuringia’s leader. It was the first time in German postwar history that a regional prime minister had come to power with the help of votes from a hard-right party.
Merkel intervened in the crisis while on an official visit to South Africa, calling the CDU’s behaviour “unforgivable” and insisting that Kemmerich’s election be cancelled. It was a surprising move from a chancellor who had tended to keep out of the cut-and-thrust of party politics since standing down as leader of the CDU in 2018.
She said Kemmerich’s election represented the violation of a “fundamental belief for the CDU and also for me, namely that we shouldn’t try to gain majorities with the help of the AfD”. She said it was a “bad day for democracy”.
The court said that by speaking negatively about the AfD, Merkel had “influenced the competition between the political parties in a one-sided way”.
Her statement was an “intervention in the right to equal participation in the process of the formation of political opinion” that was “not justified” by her task as chancellor to safeguard both the stability of the government and the German government’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
The judges also criticised the decision of the chancellery to publish her comments on the government website, saying that it had drawn on resources that were “available to them alone”.
The election of Kemmerich set off a political earthquake in Germany that reached deep into the corridors of power in Berlin. The actions of the CDU in Thuringia were a huge embarrassment for the then CDU chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had long been seen as Merkel’s heir apparent.
The then-chancellor’s intervention in the crisis was widely seen as having fatally undermined Kramp-Karrenbauer’s authority. A few days later she stepped down as party chair, throwing Merkel’s plans for her succession into disarray.
The constitutional court judges said it was “essential” that state institutions “preserve their neutrality” when it came to political competition between parties. That principle applied to the chancellor, too, they said.