With her party pushed into third place in her home state by the far-right AfD, the backlash against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy may be the beginning of her end.
S unday saw Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) take the lead in state elections in Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, securing over 30% of the vote. However, the shock news was that the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland’s unprecedented 20.8% pushed Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into third place – a blow all the more symbolic because it was delivered in the chancellor’s home state.
Now, Europe’s far-right is celebrating the AfD’s record scores, with Geert Wilders of the Dutch PVV hailing, rather unseasonally, the start of a 'Patriotic Spring”, and the end of “cultural relativism”. Marine Le Pen, president of the French Front National, tweeted that her German counterpart’s second place polling proved “what was impossible yesterday has become possible”. Leif-Erik Holm, the AfD’s candidate for Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, even suggested that the election results signified “the beginning of the end” of Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship.
The birth, metamorphosis, and ascent of the AfD
AfD began in 2013 as a eurosceptic party. Bernd Lucke founded it in the wake of the 2008-2011 bailouts, to protest the fact that Germany had to prop up struggling Southern European states. However, as the influx of refugees continued to intensify and Ms. Merkel made the bold decision to open Germany’s doors to some of the world’s most desperate people, AfD adopted anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and closed-border policies.
Mr. Lucke was ousted after criticising the party’s skyrocketing xenophobia, and Frauke Petry, notorious for stating police should "shoot at refugees”, took over as leader. AfD had been on the verge of political anemia, and would have petered out had it not been for the immigration surge of 2015. Professor Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, of Mannheim University, considers Ms. Merkel’s autumn 2015 welcome policy an “unexpected new development, that [AfD] skillfully exploited”.
Now that AfD has delegates in nine of the 16 German federal states, political observers note that more and more fringe groups are rallying to its cause. This may prove problematic in the long run, as, other than its anti-immigration, anti-Merkel sentiment, AfD “lacks policy positions in most issue areas... At some point, the party will need to come up with more positive messages,” suggests Professor Reimut Zohlnhöfer of Heidelberg University. “That might prove very difficult, as party members come from very different backgrounds.”
While the AfD voter profile holds true to certain trends - mainly male, often less educated, unemployed or in precarious employment, as Professor Schmitt-Beck points out - it is also variable. The current “widespread feeling of social, economic and political insecurity” is a product of the fragmentation and individualisation of the political scene. Professor Elmar Altvater, of FU Berlin’s Otto-Suhr-Institut, claims that “votes in favour of AfD came from former non-voters, as well as from the other mainstream right-wing parties, former left voters included.”
The German leader’s home state of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania is “mainly a rural area, where voters experience low numbers of migrants as a drastic change, given the existing low level of migrants,” explains Professor Thomas König, editor of the American Political Science Review. The newer states of East Germany are less closely connected to the established party system, making them rich pickings for the likes of AfD. Moreover, since AfD support is not related to people’s actual, lived experience with immigrants, it may no longer make a difference whether immigration plummets or not, Professor Schmitt-Beck explains.
As has been seen so many times across Europe recently, the face-off between Chancellor Merkel and AfD thus expresses a conflict between cosmopolitan, liberal, and highly skilled voters, whom economic and cultural globalisation profits, and those working in dwindling industry sectors: challenged in their nationalistic views, and left behind by the globalisation of labour and culture. In light of that social tension, Ms. Merkel repeating her now trademark sentence, “we will make it”, left this latter class of voters feeling threatened and overlooked, their concerns disregarded.
Merkel, Turkey, and walking the tightest rope
By now, it is undeniable that Ms. Merkel has quietly rolled back her “welcome” policy. The number of refugees entering and remaining on German territory has declined dramatically over the last year. This is partly due to the closing of the passage via the Balkans and the tightening of conditions for asylum which has warranted an increase in deportation rates.
More crucially, Chancellor Merkel has been attempting to smooth out the details of a migrant deportation deal with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan since April of this year. The agreement’s goal was to curb the rate of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers setting off from Turkey and reaching the Greek islands via the Aegean. Its main features? Deportation from Greece back to Turkey of “all new irregular migrants” (arriving after March 20, 2016). In return, EU member states would take more Syrian refugees from Turkey, waive visa requirements for Turkish nationals travelling within the EU bloc, and increase their financial support of Turkish existing refugee populations.
Given the draconian crackdown on civil liberties operating in Turkey since the failed July coup against President Erdogan, and the questionable legal and moral ramifications of the migrant deal as it stands, Ms. Merkel wades in murky waters. Were she to finalise the terms of the migrant deal, her far-right opponents would accuse her of sponsoring the lives of refugees, this time not even on German soil. They would also berate her for cutting deals with an openly authoritarian government, whose prolonged purge shows little respect for democratic principles.
To make matters worse, what is left of her moderate, centre-right and centre-left support base would crumble, with Germany’s humanitarian liberals decrying what they deem an inhumane bartering of refugees from one border to the next. The fact of it is that, for all the back-and-forth between Germany and Turkey on the minutiae of the migrant deal, the EU migrant deal has been operating for months now.
This backtracking is not something Ms. Merkel advertises - so as not to “seem wavering”, thinks Professor Schmitt-Beck, and also because she still believes her Autumn 2015 policy “was without alternative for humanitarian reasons”. One must also bear in mind that though this policy reversal will likely cost her party votes in the 2017 elections, it won’t quench the nationalist thirst of her political enemies. Joel Schalit, news editor at EurActiv, wrote the now viral ‘Letter to Angela Merkel from a German Jew’. In it, he underlines the trap of attempting to reclaim ground lost to the right-wing - rather than reassure panicked or disgruntled voters on the border between right and extreme-right, it simply marked Ms. Merkel out as a hypocrite to both sides. “Centrist governments,” Mr. Schalit remarked, tried “to match the growth of neo-Nazi parties like Austria’s FPO, and France’s National Front, adopt their paranoid rhetoric and security policies, and move their countries rightwards. The strategy always backfires, as voters sense the disingenuousness, and vote for the real thing.”
Where to, now?
Freshly returned from the G20 in China, Ms. Merkel addressed the German Parliament on Wednesday. Three days had passed since the elections which saw her party routed in Mecklenberg-West Pomerania, and the chancellor’s speech was one of her most full-blooded stances against the AfD. She mentioned the extreme-right party by name - something she’d previously avoided so as not to legitimise the vitriolic group. Crucially, she then called on the Bundestag to confront the AfD, puncture the fallacies of its populist rhetoric, and win back electors’ trust.
Chancellor Merkel appealed to her fellow politicians for a renewed focus on “facts”, which would present the public with “a good social and economic perspective”. That comment was the positive side of the coin she flicked at “those people who bet on slogans, and seemingly easy answers”.
Tellingly, she also encouraged her colleagues not to seek “small gains” over each other. This comes after aggressive criticism of her positions from within her own CDU, a recent attack on her refugee policy by Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, and the ceaseless calls from CSU’s chief Horst Seehofer for an annual cap on refugees.
Two things may prove damaging to Ms. Merkel as the months pass. The complexity of the coalition game in Germany mean she will have to count with the combined discontent of increasingly diverse electorates. “The more the CDU declines,” warns Professor König, “the more nervously the party will react” to any upheaval or boldness. So she’ll need to regain her party’s trust, too - but a coup against her from within the CDU has very little likelihood to it, mainly because that would cast a very negative light on the party.
But the real threat is her dealings with Turkey. Over 60% of Germans oppose visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, something Ms. Merkel knows.
Notwithstanding the shots fired at Chancellor Merkel from all corners of the German political scene, and the celebratory cries of the far-right populists, there is as yet no clear, credible opponent. In spite of the SPD’s efforts to capitalise on her weakness, and Seehofer’s vehemence, Ms. Merkel is, “at the end of the day, an unchallenged leading figure” according to Professor Altvater. “The AfD has nobody of comparable stature. Nor is the Alternative for Germany an alternative to Merkel.”
“It’s too early to write political obituaries”, said Professor Zohlnhöfer. Indeed, should the AfD eventually enter the Bundestag, the moderate parties could still rally together and exclude it from any coalition negotiations. This would clip the wings of the AfD’s capacity to weigh in on federal politics, leaving them islanded, and weightless.