Will Germany’s regional elections be the beginning of the end for Merkel?

Will Germany’s regional elections be the beginning of the end for Merkel?
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Upcoming regional elections on Sunday March 13 will see a rise of the anti-immigrant party AfD at the expanse of Merkel’s ruling party and coalition partners. But will this trigger a shift in her refugee policy?

With upcoming elections in three German regions (or Länder) on March 13, the political debate in the country has grown unusually tense, with the ruling CDU-CSU and its coalition partner the Social Democrats (SDP) under pressure in each of the races.

More than just a local vote, the poll is being presented as a confidence test on the Germany’s refugee policy. The election will also be the final test for the ruling coalition ahead of the next general elections in 2017.

Depending on the outcome, Angela Merkel could face deeper internal cracks within her party, and potentially be forced to toughen her policy.

Ruling coalition in decline

According to the polls, there should be two main trends after the votes are counted in the three regions of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.

First, the ruling CDU is set to lose some support, including in the region of Baden-Württemberg (the third largest German Land in terms of population), where it had won 39% in 2011 but was replaced by a coalition of Greens and Social Democrats.

The SPD’s share of the votes is also set to decline in each region, including in Baden-Württemberg where it could miss the threshold to rejoin the Greens in coalition. This decline in such a powerful region is partly due to a strong campaign performance by the Green candidate Winfried Kretschmann, who is grabbing the mostly liberal electorate of the CDU and SPD.

But the main explanation is the second trend of the upcoming vote: a spectacular rise of the right-wing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), particularly in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.

Created in 2013, the right-wing populist party has recently shifted from an anti-bailout platform to fierce anti-immigrant (and xenophobic) rhetoric. It already has elected members in 5 of the 16 Länder, and is set to pass the 5% threshold to send representatives to each of the regional parliaments.

Merkel’s refugee policy under attack

The most important campaign theme has been immigration and the refugee crisis, a topic that should indeed play to the AfD’s favor, especially considering the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. This sentiment is particularly strong in Eastern Germany, despite most refugees settling in the West.

Therefore, the vote has been labeled a test of Angela Merkel’s open arm policy.

In the past few months, as 1.1 million refugees reached Germany in 2015 (441,800 registered for asylum), Merkel has been challenged by harsh rhetoric both from the AfD and CSU (her Bavaria-based sister party), whose leader, Horst Seehofer, is leading the charge. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) protests have also added to the xenophobic appeal, although the movement seems unable to expand any further due to its reputation.

The Cologne affair on New Year’s Eve (which saw German woman sexually abused by suspected refugees and/or migrants) has played into opposition hands, and the number of attacks on refugee shelters in 2015 has surged to 1,029 (from 199 in 2014).

Faced with a difficult situation on the European front, with neighboring countries closing their borders, Merkel has been under pressure to reverse her policy. She has already introduced a two-year ban on family reunions for some asylum-seekers, and a law that allows deportation of foreign nationals who commit crimes (in response to the New Year’s sexual assaults).

Regardless of the election result and opposition critics, it is likely that Merkel will keep pushing her own agenda on the refugee topic in the short run.

The pressure should even soften in the short term since border fencing policies from Austria to Macedonia have temporarily reduced the number of new arrivals.

But as the 2017 general elections approach, her capacity to inspire confidence in her welcoming domestic policy among Germans will be linked to a successful resolution at the European level that permanently reduces the flow of newcomers.

Testing Merkel’s leadership

If the current strategy of rapprochement with Turkey and strengthening of the EU external border fails, Merkel will have to leave German politics by the back door next year (though she is not compelled not to run again by term limits), leaving her own party and coalition partner SPD in a difficult situation.

This prospect is partly why internal divisions are emerging in Merkel’s party on the issue of migrants and refugees. Other than Mr. Seehofer’s open criticism, Julia Klöckner and Guido Wolf — who lead the CDU’s campaigns in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg — have called for refugee quotas and tighter border controls.

Merkel is now stuck between Mr. Seehofer’s hawkish comments to the right of her coalition, and a rising Green party that eats into the SDP’s electorate on the left. So far, she has resisted internal strife during several party votes when a large majority of members endorsed her leadership.

But the SPD is increasingly feeling isolated in a coalition with the CSU arm, and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel (the Economy Minister and a major contender for Merkel’s successor) has criticized the stance of its Bavarian coalition partner as simply providing fodder for the AfD.

A weaker than expected performance on March 13th for the CDU-CSU could give a boost to Merkel’s critics and make life difficult for the Chancellor in her potential last year in power. If the SPD scores as polls predict, the party could be tempted to start distancing itself from Merkel in order to prepare for 2017.

Weakened from within, the effect on German leadership would then make a positive resolution of the refugee crisis unlikely at the European level. Consequently, another lasting crisis would emerge in which the AfD would keep rising, along with other anti-establishment parties in the rest of the continental bloc.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Julien Freund

Julien is an analyst with a focus on Europe. He has worked as a lobbyist in Paris and Brussels and has written extensively on the rise of nationalist parties. He holds two master's degrees in geopolitics and international relations and in European relations, and received his BA in economics and social sciences from the Catholic Institute of Paris.