German election bruises Merkel, but isn’t a knockout blow

“It’s the refugees, stupid.”

That might as well have been the catchphrase in Sunday’s regional elections in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition suffered a crushing defeat. A budget surplus of 19 billion euros and the lowest unemployment rate in 25 years weren’t enough to keep the loyalty of voters in three states.

The 1 million asylum seekers who reached Germany in 2015 — and the prospect of a similar number arriving this year — turned these elections into a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy.

The right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) burst into all three regional legislatures, winning not only a quarter of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, a rustbelt state in the former East Germany, but also 15 percent in wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, according to preliminary results. The AfD was founded as an anti-euro party during the Greek debt crisis, but has since taken a hard line on refugees. The upstart party now holds seats in half of Germany’s 16 state assemblies.

Discontent with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led to a 12 percent drop in support in Baden-Wuerttemberg — making the once marginal, environmentalist Greens the strongest party in the traditionally conservative state.

The results for Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, were even more catastrophic. It suffered double-digit losses in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, and hung on to the wine-growing Rhineland-Palatinate only because the Christian Democratic Union did even worse.

“This is a tectonic shift in Germany’s political landscape,” said Horst Seehofer, head of the CDU’s ultra-conservative Bavarian sister party and the loudest internal critic of Merkel’s refugee policy.

The emotive issue of how many asylum seekers Germany is morally obliged — and physically capable — to accept is eroding the country’s consensus-driven politics. Right-wing fringe parties have appeared in the past. The diabolical thing about the Alternative for Germany is that it is squeezing into the slim gap between the CDU and the hard right that opened up after Merkel moved her party to the center.

On first glance, Sunday’s elections look like punishment for Merkel’s liberal refugee policy. But, a more precise explanation is German society’s growing polarization. “The democratic center hasn’t become stronger but smaller,” Sigmar Gabriel, the top Social Democrat and Merkel’s vice chancellor, said glumly in Berlin on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, AfD supporters at party headquarters in Saxony-Anhalt were chanting “A-F-D, A-F-D” — not unlike backers of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who often yell “U-S-A, U-S-A.”

True, conservatives abandoned the Christian Democrats in droves to vent their unhappiness with Merkel. But a significant portion of voters — not necessarily from the CDU — cast ballots in favor of the chancellor.

Despite the topsy-turvy results, all three incumbent state premiers are expected to keep their jobs. Winfried Kretschmann, the Greens premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg, once said that he prays for Merkel every day. Malu Dreyer, the Social Democratic premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, also made no secret of her support for the federal government’s refugee policy.

Many commentators have interpreted the victories of Kretschmann and Dreyer as a vote for Merkel — and against the regional CDU frontrunners who tried to distance themselves from her.

The problem of Merkel’s “grand coalition” on the national level is that the Christian Democrats and their Social Democratic allies control 80 percent of the vote in the Bundestag, or parliament, meaning the two parties have blurred into one in the public imagination. The only opposition parties in the Bundestag are the progressive Greens and post-communist Left Party — which goes a long way in explaining the popularity of right-wing outliers like the Alternative for Germany.

Conservatives may be disillusioned with what has become of the Christian Democratic Union of Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor after World War Two, or of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who reunified Germany in 1990. But today’s Social Democrats, heirs to charismatic chancellors such as Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, have even more reason for frustration. Party chief Gabriel is a bumbling, uninspiring alternative to Merkel.

The German political establishment is hoping that the AfD will self-destruct by proving itself incompetent in the nitty-gritty of local governance, like other far-right parties before it. The AfD, for its part, is already claiming to be the next Volkspartei, representing a broad cross-section of the German people.

The price for Merkel’s refusal to close Germany’s borders is a deeply divided conservative camp, according to Tanit Koch, editor of the tabloid Bild. “No German chancellor has been able to rule against their own party for long,” she wrote after the election.

Merkel, in her first remarks after the election on Monday, acknowledged that it had been a rough day for her party. At the same time, she pledged to find a transnational solution to the refugee crisis that would allow Europe to keep its internal borders open while curtailing the flow of migrants through cooperation with countries like Turkey.

“I don’t see it as an existential problem for the CDU,” Merkel said, “but I do see it as a problem.” The answer lay in confronting the AfD with arguments and practicable solutions, the chancellor said.

When asked if she would ask the Bundestag to reconfirm her government with a vote of confidence, the chancellor said she didn’t see the need. The internal revolt notwithstanding, she won’t have to face the electorate in a general election for another year-and-a-half.

Merkel is betting that will be enough time to put the refugee crisis behind her.

Lucian Kim is a Berlin-based journalist who has covered the Ukraine conflict for Slate, Newsweek, and BuzzFeed. He previously worked as a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Moscow and The Christian Science Monitor in Berlin.

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