Pressure mounting for Angela Merkel
Today's elections for three regional parliaments promise to be an important test for Chancellor Merkel’s popularity. Her handling of the refugee issue has polarized German society and put pressure on her ability to govern the country. Anti-establishment right wing formations threaten to undermine her CDU’s traditional monopoly of the conservative vote in the country. Merkel may come out politically weakened.
Germany is a federal state with serious powers vested in its sixteen regional states (Länder). Every five years regional parliaments (Landtage) are elected, based on proportional representation, even though filtered by a minimum requirement of 5% of the vote. Some of these states are quite big, such as North-Rhine-Westfalia and Bavaria, in fact a lot bigger than most member countries of the European Union. Others, such as Bremen and Saarland, are rather small. They are mostly characterized by distinct cultural differences and also by rather striking disparities in wealth and power. In particular the East German states, formerly belonging to the GDR, are still relatively poor and weak in comparison with their western counterparts.
Today elections are held in two West-German states, Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, both located in the south western part of the country, and in one East-German state, Sachsen-Anhalt, which rather finds itself in the central eastern part. Their current governments are all differently composed. In Magdeburg a ‘grand coalition’ of CDU and SPD forms the government, in Mainz a ‘red-green coalition’ of Social-Democrats and Greens rules the state, whereas in Stuttgart the same parties are in power, with the important difference that here the Greens are stronger than the Reds and lead the state government. Three different coalitions and three different prime ministers: a Christian-Democrat, a Social-Democrat, and a Green. In fact, the latter - Winfried Kretschmann - has occupied this position since 2011 and is the only Green prime minister in Germany. As he and his party score very high in the regional polls, it looks probable that he will return in power after today’s elections.
On the national level Germany is governed by a ‘grand coalition’ of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, led by Angela Merkel. She is the first woman to become federal chancellor, which she has been since 2005. This is her third government, that she built after winning the parliamentary elections in September 2013 by a wide margin, in fact almost by an absolute majority in seats. Generally she is quite popular, even among voters of the left, in particular for the way she has led Germany and Europe through the Euro crisis. She also plays an important role on the international scene, in particular by leading Europe vis a vis Russia in the Ukraine crisis. By many she is seen as the most powerful and influential woman in the world, which was again accentuated by Time Magazine that in last December chose her as “Person of the Year”.
In Time’s election Merkel’s role in the current refugee crisis played an important role, as she was seen as the only European leader to show a genuine moral compass by offering in particular Syrians a warm welcome in her country, rather than just considering their influx to be a problem. Initially, in particular in September and October 2015, a great majority of the German population followed her example and received the hundreds of thousands of refugees with great compassion. They even helped turning the word “Willkommenskultur” into an internationally recognized term. Gradually, however, the tide started to turn somewhat, as the mass of refugees started to strain Germany’s administrative and logistical capacities and also the tolerance of its people. Nasty events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have come as a shock to many. There is still quite a bit of support for Merkel ‘s policy, but people also wonder whether she still has things in her hand, both at home and in Europe. Particularly within her own party and its Bavarian sister party CSU pressure to strongly limit the influx has been mounting. Merkel has so far not given in to these demands, but at the same time works hard on reaching agreement with Turkey aimed at getting this mass immigration under control.
Politically the situation has led to unrest within the ruling coalition, on the one hand, and to the rise of right wing populism, on the other. In particular the relatively new party “Alternative für Deutschland”, which has turned its Euroscepticism and anti-immigration stance into an increasingly overt nationalism, seems to provide a welcome haven for those Germans who feel overwhelmed by the immigrants and alienated by the established parties. Neonazis also engage in this mobilization against refugees. Today’s elections will give an indication of the degree of popular support the AfD is capable of mustering, both in politically rather solid states in the south west of the country and in an eastern environment which is far more prone to breaking with established political correctness. It looks probable that the AfD will enter all three regional parliaments with at least 10% of the vote, in Magdeburg perhaps even above 15%.
How such an outcome will affect Merkel’s political position? She will certainly not step down, but her ability to govern Germany and play a leading European and international role may be somewhat hampered. This might certainly be the case as long as Germans (and other Europeans) question her political management of the refugee crisis. Her history so far, however, indicates that she will rise to the occasion and gives reason to predict that she will also overcome this political challenge.