Thomas Kemmerich, a politician from the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), scored 45 votes thanks to support from the anti-immigrant AfD party, leapfrogging incumbent Bodo Ramelow of the Left party by one vote.
Far-right backing for regional politician shocks Germany
The tiny central state of Thuringia broke a German political taboo Wednesday after a candidate for the regional premiership was heaved into office with help from the far right for the first time ever, prompting a storm of outrage.
"This is the first time in the history of modern Germany that a state premier has been elected with AfD votes," political scientist Andre Brodocz told broadcaster MDR.
The AfD's own candidate received zero votes, indicating the party's state legislators aligned as a bloc behind Kemmerich.
While the vote was secret, the liberal candidate must also have enjoyed support from lawmakers belonging to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU, as well as his FDP stablemates.
Media were quick to describe the event as a "political earthquake", as mainstream parties had so far refused to countenance working with anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-EU AfD at any level.
Addressing the local parliament in Erfurt, Kemmerich sought to assuage concerns by insisting he would stick to a pre-election pledge not to work with the AfD.
"You have in me a bitter opponent of anything that even hints at radicalism, from the right or left, or fascism," he said, to jeers from local MPs and shouts of "Hypocrite!" and "Charlatan!".
'Bad day for liberals'
People from across the political spectrum quickly condemned the tacit cooperation between CDU, FDP and AfD in social media posts.
"Every decent liberal should be ashamed that an FDP man has been elected with votes from the AfD," tweeted Hubertus Heil, federal labour minister from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Voices within the FDP were divided, with board member Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann tweeting that the "unacceptable and unbearable" alliance made it a "bad day for me as a liberal".
But the party's deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki welcomed Kemmerich's election as state premier.
AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily the vote showed there was "less distance" between the CDU, FDP and AfD than other parties, showing the movement was part of a "middle class" majority.
It would be "understandable" if the AfD demanded ministerial jobs in Kemmerich's government, he added.
Thuringia belongs to Germany's former communist east, where rejection of the far right has not taken such deep roots as in the west in the decades since the country's 1990 reunification.
As in other eastern states, the autumn 2019 election brought a surge there for the AfD.
But in light of the firewall towards the far right, incumbent state premier Ramelow was widely tipped to be reelected.
Jewish leader 'horrified'
Despite the 2019 regional election robbing his coalition of absolute control in the state parliament, most observers had expected Ramelow, a popular local politician, to win a simple majority.
Talks to find a possible majority coalition, rather than continuing with his weakened alliance of Left party, social democrats (SPD) and Greens, were complicated by national politics.
Merkel's CDU, who placed third in last year's ballot after the Left and the AfD, argue both are too extreme in their positions and have a nationwide policy of not working with either party.
The dam breaking in Thuringia is all the more surprising to observers as the AfD's leader there, Bjoern Hoecke, is one of the party's most radical figures, heading a loose movement within the party known as the "Wing".
He has in the past called for a "180 degree turn" in Germany's culture of remembrance for the Holocaust and other crimes of the Nazis, which form a central pillar of the country's post-World War II political life.
Wednesday marked a "new start for Thuringian politics," Hoecke said, adding the AfD had helped stop it becoming a "left-wing state".
Central Council of Jews in Germany president Josef Schuster said in a statement he was "horrified" by Wednesday's vote.
"The FDP has quit the consensus among democratic parties not to work together with the AfD or to count on the far right's support," Schuster said.
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