Local elections in Thuringia: enemies of the constitution on ballot papers

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Written By Maya Cantina

In Thuringia, neo-Nazi Tommy Frenck is participating in the officially sanctioned district elections in Hildburghausen. How strong is local democracy?

The neo-Nazi Tommy Frenck at the right-wing rock concert

Can be elected in local elections despite anti-constitutional sentiments: neo-Nazi Tommy Frenck Photo: image

HILDBURGHAUSEN/BERLIN taz | Recently there was reason to celebrate again in Hildburghausen. Citizens together dug out a playground in their district town and won a beautification competition organized by MDR. As a reward, the channel organized a hit party on the market square: Semino Rossi, Karat and Olaf from the Flippers, they all came to the south of Thuringia. And the center of Hildburghausen was packed.

However, the party scene had one downside, at least if you wanted to see it: from the light poles in all corners of the market square the face of Tommy Frenck, a nationally known neo-Nazi, competes with the pop audience. His election posters were also clearly visible on television.

Local elections will take place in Thuringia on Sunday. On this day, local parliaments in cities, municipalities and districts are replaced and most mayors and district administrators are also eligible for election. One thing is especially present in Hildburghausen: the posters with the grinning face of Tommy Frenck or those of his far-right voting group “Bündnis Zukunft Hildburghausen” (BZH) are oppressively dominant in many corners of the town. While the election of the first AfD district executive in the neighboring Sonneberg district last year caused a shock wave in Germany, people in Hildburghausen are now seriously discussing whether a neo-Nazi could at least make it to the second election. However, others wonder why Frenck’s candidacy was not stopped in advance.

Although there are usually no election polls at the local level, election predictions are not far-fetched. In the last district elections of 2018, Frenck obtained almost 17 percent out of nowhere. The incumbent CDU district executive, who won the elections in the first round with an absolute majority, is no longer allowed to run this year due to his age, so the cards are being shuffled again. Especially since the AfD, which won the most votes in the district with almost 29 percent in the last federal elections, is not even participating in the race. We couldn’t find a candidate the party told the local press.

Schnitzel for 8.88 euros

That Frenck actually made it to the second round Thomas Jakob, district chairman of the SPD and spokesperson for the Alliance for Democracy and Cosmopolitanism in Kloster Veßra, also sees it as “realistic”. The association was founded in 2015 as a counterpart to civil society, shortly after Frenck bought an inn in the village of Kloster Veßra. To this day he runs it as an innkeeper under the name “Goldener Löwe”. It is a place of pilgrimage for the right-wing German scene.

Before Frenck was admitted to the elections, so had Thomas Jakob’s alliance A petition has been successfully started together with the campaign network Campact, which called on the previous district administrator to hand over information on constitutional protections to the district election commission to enable an “appropriate” decision on the 37-year-old’s candidacy. More than 8,000 signatures were collected.

In fact, the election committee ultimately received a seven-page dossier, but it was only presented to the members just before the vote in the public meeting. Ultimately, the committee rejected the concerns by a vote of three to two. He was “shocked” by the result, says Bernd Ahnicke. The 77-year-old retiree sits in the left-wing district council of Hildburghausen and voted against Frenck in the election committee. Ahnicke can only explain the green light for the candidacy of two CDU people plus the district official by saying that they still “didn’t know who they had in front of them.”

Even looking at it from the outside, it’s hard to believe. Frenck repeatedly made national headlines, be it as the organizer of Germany’s largest right-wing rock festival or because he performed at the “Golden Lion” on Adolf Hitler’s birthday Schnitzel sold for 8.88 euros – The 88 is a scene code for “Heil Hitler,” based on the eighth letter of the alphabet. Frenck makes no secret of his racist worldview; he has an “Aryan” tattoo in capital letters on his neck. In his mail order company, which he also runs, he also offers Ku Klux Klan cuddly toys in addition to typical clothing and stabbing weapons. Sometimes it seems like a bad Nazi pastiche to generate attention.

“I’m afraid the neighborhood has gotten used to it for a long time,” says Thomas Jakob. Frenck has been in the district council since the last municipal elections without making much fuss. The Thuringian Office for the Protection of the Constitution writes in its 2022 report on Frenck that he “presents himself mainly as a regional politician, entrepreneur, innkeeper and benefactor.” Jakob’s impression is: “A lot of people here think: well, that’s just the way he is, Tommy.” Frenck should not have stood for election because of him. Jakob refers to a passage in the Thuringian local election law that prohibits candidates from becoming district administrators if they do not stand up for the values ​​of the free, democratic basic order. “It just doesn’t work.”

Is the Election Commission the right body?

Sven Gregor of the Free Voters, one of the favorites for the new position of district administrator in Hildburghausen, emphasizes another point: he thinks it is wrong to leave such a decision to a voluntary body at local level. “Here are people sitting in a public meeting and then having their names in the newspaper.”

Michael Brenner, professor of administrative and constitutional law at the University of Jena

“Our society is ready to defend itself against enemies of the Constitution”

Left-wing Bernd Ahnicke cannot rule out the possibility that Frenck’s presence at the election commission meeting might have made some evaluators nervous. Or the fear that Frenck would denounce the decision and the elections would have to be repeated later.

But how should a democracy deal with clear enemies of the Constitution? If you ask Michael Brenner, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the University of Jena, he has a clear answer: “It should protect extremists to show permissible and constitutional teeth.“This also included not being allowed to participate in elections,” Brenner said. “Restrictions on the right to vote are perfectly permissible if they are necessary for sufficient reasons of public welfare.” However, it is not enough that someone is critical of the social order or is a member of a right-wing extremist party. “There is still a lot to be done.”

Brenner advocates careful examination of voting records. Under the current circumstances, the election commission can actually only do this superficially. If council members conduct a quick check during the meeting, they can only intervene in the case of “substantiated and very serious allegations of unconstitutionality,” Brenner said. If excluded candidates defend themselves legally, the time pressure is high, for example to meet the deadlines for printing the ballot papers. And the law does not formulate how unconstitutionality should be specifically determined.

Discussion also about the approval of the Thuringian AfD leader

This also leads to discussions among other Thuringian candidates. In Erfurt for example. That’s where he steps AfD politician Stefan Möller for the position of mayor. As in Hildburghausen, there were three votes in favor and two against him in the election committee. Möller is the second state chairman of the AfD Thuringia, alongside Björn Höcke, and also sits in the state parliament and is chairman of the Erfurt AfD municipal council group. And just like Frenck, Möller also dives in the current constitutional protection report on.

The Erfurt election commission was probably aware of this. The Thuringian Office for the Protection of the Constitution provided 36 pages of its findings on Möller. Green domestic politician Madeleine Henfling also criticizes Möller’s confession: “If the Office for the Protection of the Constitution makes 36 pages available, it does not say that Mr Möller did nothing.”

Ultimately, it was crucial in the Erfurt election committee that the SPD representative also voted for Möller. The left and the CDU voted against. The city association SPD defends the decision on Instagram: a possible legal dispute could have ended in favor of the AfD. In this way, the SPD prevented the AfD from portraying itself as an alleged victim of state arbitrariness. The post drew criticism, even from his own party.

The SPD Erfurt has now deleted the message. In a new one, she argues that mere membership of a right-wing extremist party is not enough. Dem holds Stephan Kramer, Chairman of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia and himself an SPD member, from his private report: “The candidate is already mentioned by name in the chapter on right-wing extremism in the Constitutional Protection Report 2021. If that is not enough to prove ‘individual anti-constitutionality’, what is? ”

Could Möller now become mayor of the capital? The 49-year-old received only 14 percent as an AfD candidate in the last elections in Erfurt. But this year, with the AfD at around 30 percent in the polls for the state elections, things could end better for him.

But even if extremists were elected, the rule of law can still defend itself against them, reassures administrative lawyer Brenner. “Our society is absolutely prepared to defend itself against enemies of the Constitution.” As elected political officials, mayors and district administrators are also bound by the constitution. After their election, the government can subject them to “democracy control”. If they fail, new elections must be held. When in doubt, this is the legally safe route, says Brenner. Unlike the election commission, there would be less time pressure and more resources available.

The path still contributes to normalization, warns Madeleine Henfling, member of the Green Party. The enemies of the constitution could spread their propaganda and ideology during the election campaign – as Tommy Frenck is currently doing with his posters in Hildburghausen.

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