German Chancellor Angela Merkel is having a rough month. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has taken a beating in regional elections throughout September, most recently in a ballot held Sunday in Berlin. Her problem is her support for immigration and the settlement of over a million refugees who have fled violence in the Middle East over the last year. The beneficiary of her determination to do the right thing for those displaced by war is the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), a Euro-skeptic party that is anti-Islam and anti-immigrant. Merkel has a year before she faces a national election, which should give her enough time to recover. Doing so will require a unity of purpose among the chancellor and her political allies, some of which share the AfD’s skepticism about refugees.
September began with elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, one of the smaller of Germany’s 16 states. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania does not have much political or economic influence, but it is where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency, in theory providing the chancellor with something of a boost. That theory proved false in the Sept. 4 ballot: The election was won by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which led the incumbent state government with the CDU, with 30.6 percent of the vote. The CDU came in third, with 19 percent of the vote, bested by AfD, which won 20.8 percent of votes.
The bad news was repeated last weekend in Berlin state elections. Again, the SPD came in first with 21.6 percent of the vote. The CDU was second, with 17.6 percent of the electorate, with the radical Left Party, remnants of the old communists, and the Greens coming in third and fourth, respectively. AfD came in fifth, claiming 14.2 percent of ballots cast.
The AfD passed the 5 percent threshold that gives it seats in the legislature, and the party is now in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. That is not bad for a party formed just three years ago and appears to be a cleaned-up version of the extreme right. Indeed, much of the AfD’s support comes from the hard-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which is losing support as the limits of its electoral appeal become clear. Centrists from the CDU and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have drifted right as they grow troubled by Merkel’s open-door policy; exit polls show that as much as 22 percent of AfD support comes from former Christian Democrats.
As a result, the AfD is now winning as much as 15 percent in some national polls and is poised to take its first seats in the national parliament in general elections to be held next year. AfD leaders proclaimed the election results herald “the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.”
The German establishment is nervous, and there are growing strains in the alliance between the CDU and the CSU. CSU leaders are quick to lay the blame at Merkel’s feet, noting that her immigration policy is “very harmful.” Again, exit polls suggest that they are right: refugee policy was decisive for 72 percent of AfD voters. The CSU has called for an annual cap on migrants and party leaders insist the election results have vindicated that policy.
Merkel shows little sign of changing course, however. In remarks to the parliament after the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania results, she admitted that “the AfD is a challenge for all of us in this house,” but, she continued, “if we seek to get the better of each other for short-term gain … the ones who’ll win are those who depend on slogans and simple answers.”
The truth is that Germany has absorbed over 1 million refugees with little difficulty. The biggest problem is a lack of language teachers who give the immigrants the most essential tool to contribute to German society. Inability to speak German means that refugees cannot find jobs and they remain unemployed. There have been well-publicized incidents of crime, but the overall crime rate remains level. If there has been an increase in violence, it reflects attacks on refugees. In the Berlin poll, less than a third of voters said they were afraid of refugees and over a half said they believed refugees enriched life in Germany.
With a year to go before national elections, Merkel has time to find her feet. She has not yet announced whether she will contest a fourth term as chancellor, although the smart money is betting that she will. Germans may be troubled by the migrant situation, but the number of refugees is falling, dropping from 90,000 in January to 16,335 in June, and Merkel can still appeal to the moral high ground. She faces two challenges. The first is getting political allies to put aside expediency and stand on principle. That is more difficult than usual given the right-wing resurgence throughout Europe that validates a harder line against immigrants. The second challenge is practical: ensuring that refugees have the tools to integrate into German society. If those immigrants can become productive citizens, fears about their presence will diminish.
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