Germany’s far-Left party has returned to power in a state government for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, stoking heated debate about its communist roots.
The Left Party, widely seen as the successor to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that once ruled East Germany, will head the government of Thuringia after the state parliament narrowly voted to approve a new coalition.
The new state prime minister, Bodo Ramelow, used his first speech in parliament to apologise to victims of the former communist regime, and said he wanted to “reconcile rather than divide”.
Thousands of people braved sub-zero temperatures on the streets of the state capital, Erfurt, on Thursday night to protest against the expected result of the vote.
Angela Merkel predicted the decision would be “bad news” for Thuringia, while the German President, Joachim Gauck, broke with the traditional neutrality of his role to speak out against it.
But the state parliament voted to approve Mr Ramelow’s three-way coalition after the Social Democrats, Mrs Merkel’s partner in the federal government, rejected an alliance with her Christian Democrats in the state.
The coalition, which is completed by the Green Party, will have a majority of just one seat in the state parliament.
Although Mr Ramelow grew up in West Germany, many of the Left Party’s leadership were senior figures in the East German communist party and some have been accused of links with the Stasi secret police.
Thuringia was part of East Germany until reunification, and many have expressed dismay at the former communists’ return to power.
“Old SED [Socialist Unity Party] comrades and Stasi informers run the state now,” said Rainer Wagner, chairman of the Union of Victims’ Associations of Communist Tyranny.
“Many who were in prison in the GDR [East Germany] are very upset,” the director of the Stasi memorial in Berlin, Hubertus Knabe, told Nord-West Zeitung newspaper. “They feel that the lessons of history have been forgotten.”
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman issued a terse statement: “It is government practice that the Chancellor sends each elected [state] prime minister her congratulations, and that, of course, is what she does in this case”.