Merkel’s ‘Black Sunday’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been hurt by regional elections held last weekend. In that ballot, the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD) surmounted the 5 percent barrier that allows it to take seats in three state parliaments. The vote is most easily seen as a protest against Merkel’s immigration policies, which have opened Germany’s doors to refugees. That is an oversimplification of the results, however. A closer reading suggests a growing dissatisfaction with German politics more generally. Growing support for rightwing groups is troubling, but those concerns must be kept in perspective.

At first glance, German voters have every reason to back their government, run by Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in coalition with the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP). The German economy grew 1.7 percent in 2015, its strongest showing in four years, unemployment is at 25-year lows, and the government enjoys a budget surplus of €19 billion. But a tidal wave of refugees — 1 million asylum seekers reached Germany last year — have overwhelmed other considerations and prompted voters to back the AfD in three regional ballots.

An anti-euro party formed in the aftermath of the Greek financial crisis, AfD is now seen as populist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant and has focused its campaigning on the refugee situation. That crusade paid off in last Sunday’s vote. The party won 12.5 percent in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, 15 percent in Baden-Wurttemberg, and 24 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, the strongest showing for a rightwing party since the end of World War II. AfD’s ability to gain backing in diverse states — Baden-Wurttemberg is wealthy, while Saxony-Anhalt is considered part of the former East German rust belt — suggests that the party’s appeal is spreading. AfD now has seats in half of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. The conservative head of the Bavarian state government, an ally of Merkel, called the results “a tectonic shift in Germany’s political landscape.”

But in no case did the AfD bring down a government. All three incumbent state premiers are anticipated to keep their jobs. The individuals most directly hurt by the results were the conservative politicians who tried to distance themselves from the chancellor and her policies. Two of the state governments that won the regional elections — Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate — were ruled by center-left coalitions that backed Merkel’s immigration policies. In Rhineland-Palatinate, exit polls showed almost one-third of voters switched from Merkel’s CDU to the Green party because it was more welcoming of refugees.

Not surprisingly, then, the government has indicated that it will not be changing its policy. And while acknowledging that the outcome of the regional votes had made for a rough day, Merkel also dismissed the call for a vote of confidence from the national parliament. Germany will not hold a general election for another 18 months and the chancellor is betting that by the time those ballots are cast, the refugee crisis will no longer top voter concerns.

Even if the immigrant crisis recedes — and a deal emerging from the Syrian peace talks that have begun in Geneva could help stem the flow — there is a larger problem for German politics. The CDU has been governing now in a grand coalition with the SDP since November 2013; the two parties control 80 percent of the seats in the federal parliament, although neither commands a majority on its own. The result has been stability, but it has also blurred distinctions between the two parties. The opposition has thus far consisted of the post-Communist party and the Greens, both of which stake out territory to the left of the ruling coalition. A political vacuum has emerged on the right and the AfD is trying to fill it. The party has not cracked the 5 percent threshold entitling it to seats in the federal parliament, but its recent gains suggest that may change.

Government strategists are hoping that the AfD will collapse under the weight of real administrative responsibility. There is a danger, however, that disaffected Germans will find common cause with similarly-inclined populist movements elsewhere in Europe and there will be a reciprocal process of validation and inferring of respectability.

This European dimension is important in another sense. While Merkel sees the election results as troublesome but not fatal, there is a perception that the chancellor is weakened and that sense of vulnerability will have an impact. Merkel is leading Europe’s responses to crises, whether it is the Greek bailout or the refugee problem. If she is seen as less solid in her grip on domestic politics at home, then her ability to push or steer the European ship of states is similarly diminished. That is an especially troubling development since there is no sign of another European leader prepared or able to step up in her place, and that sort of leadership is especially important as Europe faces the prospect of British withdrawal this summer.