Electoral blows for Angela Merkel
September 2016 has not been a good month for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. In particular, her policy vis-à-vis refugees finds itself under continuing siege. Even though the massive influx has almost stopped since the Balkan route has dried up and an EU deal with Turkey has effectively blocked further invasion of Greek islands, even though German refugee policy has become much less encouraging over the past months and even though the settlement around the country of over a million persons has increasingly been realised, the welcoming climate for refugees is still under heavy strain. Apart from the sheer numbers, which produce feelings of anxiety and deprivation among average German citizens, a series of nasty incidents have made clear that successful immigration doesn’t always equal smooth integration. In particular, the sexual harassment women were subjected to by large groups of male immigrants on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and some other German cities has caused a sharp turnaround in popular sentiment towards refugees. This trend has only been deepened by a number of terrorist attacks involving fundamentalist Muslim refugees and migrants last July in some Southern German towns.
This change in mood has now also reached the political level. What was already announced in the regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt in March of this year has now been confirmed by the results in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern earlier this month. Again, the nationalist popular movement called Alternative für Deutschland came in here as the second biggest party, capturing some 20% of the vote, not least by strongly increasing the turnout. In both cases Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union received a serious blow. This electoral movement can perhaps partly be attributed to the fact that these states find themselves in East Germany, both having been part of the GDR, and both still suffering from unemployment and other forms of social deprivation. This may certainly be the case, as it is also a fact that the political landscape in the East is far more volatile than the politically more stable Western part of Germany. Nonetheless similar outcomes, even though much less sharply pronounced, were also seen in elections in Western states, such as Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palate, in March, and again in last Sunday’s election in Berlin. Everywhere Merkel’s party is losing ground to the AfD; however, more heavily in the East than in the West. The latter was confirmed again in this latest election, where East Berlin showed itself more welcoming to the populists than the Western part of the German capital.
A year from now, in September 2017, Germany will turn out for elections to the Bundestag, its national parliament, and hence elect a new government. Is Chancellor Merkel in danger of being ousted from government by a popular vote? Nothing can be ruled out, but it is still too early to tell. For instance, she would have to first announce her decision to run for a fourth term, which in itself may still take months to come. The picture looks, however, less bright than a year ago, when in the midst of the refugee crisis she was widely applauded for her national cheering up: “Wir schaffen das” (“Yes we can”). Her party is sharply divided over her policies, while the Bavarian sister party CSU is almost breaking ranks over the refugee issue. On the other hand, the polls still show that Ms Merkel and her party, despite their recent losses, are still clearly leading the pack of German political parties. What is also clear, however, is that the current ‘grand coalition’ of CDU/CSU and the social democratic SPD stands little chance of being returned to office. But that may in itself be good news for democracy, because it would allow the country to choose between two political alternatives for Germany. It remains to be seen, however, whether that would make the Alternative für Deutschland party disappear from the political stage. After all, is Germany not already turning into a ‘normal’ country? If that is the case, then German populism will be here to stay, one way or the other. And Angela Merkel will have to deal with it.