Germany held elections in the north German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania on Sunday and it was expected that Angela Merkel’s coalition CDU party would suffer as a result of her refugee policies, which are becoming increasingly unpopular.
But few predicted the strength shown by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which outpolled CDU to finish second behind the Social Democrats. A third-place finish in one of her party’s strongholds is raising questions about Merkel’s viability going into next year’s national elections.
Although Merkel’s open-door policy and leadership at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis attracted praise from some quarters, there is growing disquiet with the policy in Germany’s public and political sphere — including within Merkel’s own governing “grand coalition” made up of the CDU, Christian Social Union (CSU) and SPD, which is a junior partner in the governing alliance.
The political beating that the CDU took this weekend was not the first indication of public opinion souring towards Merkel’s party with local elections earlier this year also showing a rise in support for the AfD.
Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-DiBa, said in a note on Monday that the latest election was “another shot across the bow for the national government and Chancellor Angela Merkel.”
He noted that the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has around 1.3 million voters, the highest youth unemployment rate of all German states, a high poverty rate and that “the extreme right-wing party, NPD (National Democratic Party), has been member of the regional parliament for ten years”.
“Therefore, yesterday’s results are obviously not representative but they definitely are symbolic for Chancellor Merkel and the entire German landscape.” The big test case ahead of the 2017 national elections will be next year’s elections in North Rhine Westphalia, a state which has more voters than all eastern German states together, Brzeski noted.
In all, however, he said that Sunday’s result would not “change Chancellor Merkel’s stance on the refugees or the economy but the atmosphere in her own government and party will become rougher.”
Another test of the CDU’s popularity will be seen when Berlin’s state election is held on September 18, however.
While Alavan’s Newton said in his note, “let’s see what happens in Berlin a fortnight from now (in the state election) before writing Merkel off,” another analyst said the Berlin election could force the CDU into an uncomfortable position with the SPD – a party that, despite partnering the CDU/CSU in power, has criticized her migrant policy.
Merkel has misjudged voter sentiment with regards to the flood of refugees. While it’s true that public opinion showed widespread acceptance of her policy at the beginning, voter mood has soured as a result of several terrorist attacks and widely covered sexual assaults by the newcomers.
While most Germans oppose the AfD’s nationalist agenda, they agree with them about refugees: too many are coming too quickly. What the vote is really telling Merkel is that the German people want the government to regain control of its borders.
But to do that, Merkel would have to admit that she has taken the wrong approach to welcoming refugees. That stubbornness may cost her dearly:
“In the capital, the strength of the AfD could force the CDU out of the grand coalition with the SPD,” Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Sunday.
“Though hardly a CDU home turf, the regional elections in Berlin could further add to Merkel’s immediate headaches. The chancellor’s job for autumn will be to reconcile the CDU party base with her own leadership,” he said.
The prospect of being hung concentrates the mind wonderfully. A few more regional setbacks like the one on Sunday could force Merkel to either abandon her re-election or perhaps even lose her position as leader of the CDU, which could cause her to resign.