Germany’s regional election results do not spell defeat for Merkel in 2017
The March 13 regional elections in Germany are being viewed as a crushing defeat for chancellor Angela Merkel and her refugee policy. But a number of factors, from political fragmentation to a lack of challengers, suggest that Merkel is unlikely to lose her job in 2017.
After years of being viewed as an effective and pragmatic, if sometimes too cautious and reserved, chancellor, Angela Merkel turned course last fall with her idealistic open-door refugee policy. Having opened the borders to Syrian refugees, Merkel stuck to her guns even in the face of deep opposition within her own party. Now there is speculation that the policy will cost her her job.
In what was essentially seen as a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy, three German states, or Länder, held elections on March 13. The results were a crushing defeat for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The party won only one of the three Länder, losing their majority in Baden-Württemberg and failing to retake Rhineland-Palatinate, where all signs prior to the election pointed to victory. So where does that leave Merkel heading into the federal elections slated for fall 2017? Will she be able to maintain her grasp on power?
The rise of right-wing populism
Much has been made of the regional elections being a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy, and the results showing voters rejecting that policy. Indeed, the spectacular rise of the Alternative für Deutschland – a right-wing, populist party, which has made xenophobia and a complete halt of refugee flows a cornerstone of its platform – is a troubling sign for a country which has defined itself by its opposition to right-wing populism ever since the Second World War.
The AfD was formed only three years ago, initially in opposition to Eurozone bailouts. But since then, it has been marked by its anti-immigrant views, refusing to distance itself from the radical Pegida movement, which is linked to attacks on refugee shelters. Most controversially, the AfD’s leader, Frauke Petry, hasadvocated shooting at refugees at the border. That such a radical party has entered each regional parliament with significant shares of the vote – 15.1% in Baden-Württemberg, 12.5% in Rhineland-Palatinate, and an astounding 24% in Saxony-Anhalt – has been viewed with horror by Germany’s political establishment.
All of Germany’s traditional parties – the CDU, SPD, Green Party, FDP, and the Linke – have categorically ruled out working with the AfD. It is thus relegated to being an opposition party in each of the parliaments and will not be able to directly shape policy. However, its election showing has given all of Germany pause, and indicates a serious anti-refugee sentiment among significant chunks of the population.
With a sizeable portion of the electorate voting for the AfD, as well as dropping numbers for the CDU, Merkel might be expected to change course on her refugee policy, adopting a more measured approach to appease voters and woo them back to the CDU.
Refugee policy here to stay
Yet, after the vote, Merkel announced that she was not amending her policy. She will not be instituting a cap on the number of refugees, which many in her own party have called for, and will instead continue to push for a European solution.
Is this stubbornness political suicide? The numbers suggest otherwise.
While CDU candidates lost their elections in two Länder, in both they did so to candidates who are avowed supporters of Merkel’s policy. Tellingly, both CDU candidates who lost, including presumed Merkel successor Julia Klöckner, had recently distanced themselves from Merkel’s policy.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, nearly a third of voters said they switched their support from the CDU to the Greens due to Klöckner’s refugee stance. Thus, while voters rejected the CDU, they did not reject candidates who support the open-door policy.
This does, of course, present a problem for Merkel in that the AfD, SPD, and Greens peeled off CDU voters. But it also gives Merkel a renewed argument for dealing with critics in her own party. She now has a mandate to call for unification behind her policy, at the risk of losing pro-refugee voters to the left-of-center Greens and SPD. Should the CDU fall into line behind Merkel’s policy, it may well draw back voters who defected to the SPD and Greens, offsetting losses to the AfD.
Looking ahead to 2017
The next federal elections, slated for fall 2017, will be a watershed moment for Germany and all of Europe.
Since her election in 2005, Merkel has been a steady hand at Germany’s helm, guiding it through the financial crisis largely unscathed. She is also one of the EU’s biggest proponents, handling the Greek bailout, and has cut a strong figure internationally. Before the refugee crisis hit, her approval ratings were as high as 75%.
Those approval ratings have plummeted since the onset of the crisis. So do these regional election results portend electoral doom for Merkel in 2017? Not exactly.
Should she choose to run – Germany does not have term limits for chancellors and before the refugee crisis hit last summer, all signs were pointing to another candidacy – Merkel will most likely end up leading Germany for another four years.
Fragmentation helps Merkel
While the regional elections were a setback for the CDU, they were also setbacks for all parties except for the AfD. The Green Party, which won an astounding victory in Baden-Württemberg, becoming the Land’s largest party for the first time in its history, did so largely on the back of overwhelming support for its candidate, Winfried Kretschmann.
In the other two Länder, where he was not a candidate, the Green Party sunk to 5.2 and 5.3%, barely remaining in the parliaments. The FDP, the CDU’s traditional coalition partner, which fell out of the Bundestag in 2013 by failing to clear the 5% hurdle, made a small comeback. The Linke dropped out of the parliaments in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg.
Most spectacular, however, is the downfall of the SPD. Traditionally Germany’s other major party alongside the CDU, the SPD had one of its poorest ever federal showings in 2013, winning only 25.7% of the vote. The latest regional elections did nothing to show an upward trend. The SPD was able to avoid a complete disaster by holding on to Rhineland-Palatinate on the back of incumbent Malu Dreyer.
But its showings in Baden-Württemberg (12.7%) and Saxony Anhalt (10.6%), where it became only the fourth biggest party, were catastrophic.
Merkel will undoubtedly not win as large of a share of the vote next year as she did in 2013. That year, she won 41.5%, a number so high that it allowed her to almost rule without a coalition partner. But she does not need to.
The CDU remaining the largest party and the CDU’s traditional coalition partner, the FDP, reentering the Bundestag may be enough. She may also have to forge another grand coalition with the SPD, or even a broader coalition with the SPD and FDP, or somehow incorporate the Green Party. But as long as none of these parties win a larger vote share than the CDU, and are unable to form a coalition without the CDU, which seems highly unlikely given recent numbers, they won’t be able to force her to give up the chancellorship.
Internal revolt unlikely
There are, of course, concerns that Merkel could be toppled by her own party before September 2017. While German law makes it difficult to vote out a sitting chancellor, there is a chance the CDU could refuse to name her as its candidate in 2017.
Two key facts suggest this is unlikely, however. First, there are currently no real challengers to Merkel within the party, especially after Klöckner’s loss in Rhineland-Palatinate. Second, the party should recognize that the results of the election were not a rejection of the refugee policy, but rather a rejection of revolt against Merkel and the internal strife within the CDU. Merkel’s approval ratings have climbed back up above 50%, higher than the CDU’s (32.5%), suggesting the party is unquestionably better off with her at the helm. And this is without accounting for the fact that the refugee crisis may very well abate somewhat by autumn 2017, as the Balkan countries shut their borders, stemming the flow of refugees.
In a time of great instability in Europe, a change in leadership in the continent’s largest economy would produce a myriad of political risks. Merkel has been a steadying force for the EU for over ten years. Fortunately for Europe, it is unlikely that her path of idealism rather than pragmatism will cause her demise.
Laura is currently based in Bogota, conducting human rights research focused on the intersection of labor rights, indigenous communities, and environmental rights with the Colombian oil sector. She previously spent over a year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, working on human rights education projects with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. She has also worked for the United Nations Environment Programme and as a journalist and in several editorial positions, including as executive editor, at her college newspaper, The Hoya. She received an LLM with distinction in international law, focusing on human rights law and international criminal law, from the University of Edinburgh. Prior to this, she studied international relations, history, and European studies at Georgetown University, and received the Thomas T. Helde Medal in German and European Studies.