It’s just over a year since Angela Merkel uttered her now infamous words: “Wir schaffen das,” or “We can do this” – a statement that threw German society and politics into tumult.
And in the ensuing 12 months, as the chancellor has repeatedly defended her decision to take in refugees fleeing war and chaos in Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones, Germany has faced the challenge of registering, housing and caring for of up to 1 million people.
The influx has eased since a deal with Turkey and the blocking of the Balkan route, and many thousands have already left, either deported or voluntarily after their asylum applications were rejected. Nevertheless, the country still faces the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands that will stay – many for good.
It is too early to predict the outcome, but the political ramifications of this massive, unprecedented integration effort are likely to become glaringly apparent again on Sunday in the chancellor’s home state when her party, the Christian Democrats, face humiliation at the hands of an anti-immigrant populist party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD in German.
A poll by Insa Institute released Wednesday predicted the AfD would get 23 percent of the vote in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, one of Germany's poorest states, which could push Ms. Merkel's CDU into an embarrassing third place finish, at 20 percent. Since 2012, the CDU has been the junior partner in a state government led by the Social Democrats, which in turn are Ms. Merkel's junior partners at the federal level.
Such a miserable showing could complicate efforts to sustain the SPD-CDU government in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which sprawls across the Baltic Sea coast and the Polish border in Germany's northeast corner. Currently, the SPD is polling at 28 percent in the state.
Another poll on Thursday from Wahlen, a pollster based in Mannheim, was only slightly more optimistic, with the CDU and the AfD neck-and-neck at 20 percent.
The CDU would make a fool of itself if it now looked for a new candidate after three successful terms in office. There’s no getting around Merkel. Kai Arzheimer, Mainz University
The showing will likely continue the political blowback for Ms. Merkel and her party from the refugee crisis, the latest in a string of poor state election results and a slump in the polls.
After an initial wave of support for her decision to open Germany's borders to the refugees and sympathy for the new arrivals, the mood has turned increasingly sour, particularly after the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, and a spate of terror attacks in July in Bavaria, some carried out by asylum-seekers. There has also been fierce criticism of the Ms. Merkel over the German-led deal between the European Union and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees, particularly after Turkey's brutal crackdown of opponents following a failed coup.
A poll released on Thursday showed that Ms. Merkels’s own personal popularity is down to 45 percent, a five-year low, and well below the 75 percent she enjoyed in early 2015.
Nationally her CDU is at 33 percent, eight points down from this time last year. The same poll found that only 46 percent of Germans want her to run again in federal elections next fall.
Meanwhile, the AfD has gone from strength to strength on the back of anti-refugee and immigrant sentiment. This week’s poll put them at 14 percent nationally, up two percentage points compared to a month ago.
The chancellor’s party also faces another tough state election in Berlin on September 18. There the CDU, currently the junior partner to the SPD, is predicted to get only 17 percent, while the AfD is polling at 10 percent.
Many experts predict that the AfD will actually win even bigger in the elections, as many respondents refuse to tell pollsters they are voting for right-wing populists. That happened in March elections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, and in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in the west. In these contests, the AfD achieved 24 percent, 15 percent and 12 percent respectively, significantly more than what had been forecast.
When it comes to sparsely populated Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the AfD is finding fertile ground for its recipe of xenophobia and fear.
The AfD is attempting to exploit general discontent over the refugees to get out the vote.
“It’s not specific to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania but rather a national issue that is as big here now as it was in March” in the last round of elections, Martin Koschkar, a politics professor at Rostock University, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Mr. Koschkar said the AfD's appeal is finding followers in former East Germany, which has had little experience with multi-culturalism for much of its history.
“It is feeding into a general dissatisfaction with parties and politicians, a sort of frustration and resentment against politics,'' Mr. Koschkar said. "That’s why the AfD did better in Saxony-Anhalt in March, because eastern Germany seemed fertile soil, where democracy and ideas about the state and the party system are somewhat different.”
The state has already elected members of a neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany, into the regional parliament from several constituencies, although ironically polls show the NPD this time may fail to clear the 5 percent hurdle to remain in parliament. The likely reason: Some of its supporters are voting for the AfD.
“Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has a long tradition of right-wing mobilization going back to reunification,” Kai Arzheimer, an expert on far-right parties at the University of Mainz, said. The NPD entered the state legislature in 2011 and is currently polling at around 3 percent.
Mr. Koschkar said the surge in AfD support has little to do with the actual impact of the refugee crisis or presence of immigrants in the state. Ironically, relatively few people with a migrant background live in the state, they make up 4 percent of the population. While it is currently home to only about 12,000 refugees.
But the vote is being driven by unseen fears, not facts on the ground.
“The question of how many foreigners there are or how many refugees are in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania plays a completely secondary role,'' Mr. Koschkar said. "The decisive factor is how one feels. There is a feeling of threat, a feeling of change and a fear of change, that plays into this.”
At 9 percent, unemployment in the state has actually been on the decline, but the recovery has barely seemed to register with voters during the campaign.
Indeed, the state CDU leader, interior minister Lorenz Caffier, complained earlier this week that the refugee issue has overshadowed local ones.
“This is a state that doesn’t even have a refugee problem and every new arrival is registered within four days,” he said at a campaign event on Monday in Schwerin.
“In the campaign we are always being asked about the refugee issue and not about the constantly improving economy,” a CDU lawmaker, Wolfgang Waldmüller, added.
Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling institute, argued that it would be wrong to draw too many lessons from Sunday’s result. “The election with its very particular features only has a very limited significance for all of Germany,” he told Reuters.
“If you look at the national polls, the AfD is at around 10 percent, so less than half of what they are polling in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania,” Mr. Arzheimer told Handelsblatt Global. “It’s embarrassing for the CDU, but you cannot say that the federal elections will go the same way.”
Chancellor Merkel, whose own constituency is in the state and includes the city of Stralsund and the Baltic island of Rügen, will be in China during the vote attending the G20 summit when the results are made known at 6 p.m. local time on Sunday night. But a bad showing in her home state will only increase pressure on her.
Ms. Merkel has still not announced whether she will run for a fourth term in next year’s federal election, largely because Horst Seehofer, her adversary and the premier of Bavaria, has not said if he will back her. Mr. Seehofer is the leader of the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, which has traditionally teamed up with the CDU in all post-war elections.
But Mr. Seehofer has turned into a thorn in Ms. Merkel’s side, fiercely critical of her decision last September to allow thousands of refugees stranded in Budapest main station to enter the country. His constant carping has contributed to the CDU’s drop in support.
With little more than a year to go before the federal elections, it’s highly unlikely the CDU will dump Ms. Merkel, whose electoral Midas touch has seen them win every election since 2005.
“The CDU would make a fool of itself if it now looked for a new candidate after three successful terms in office,” Mr. Arzheimer said. “There’s no getting around Merkel.”
The CDU tends to fare better in federal elections than in state ones. For example, while the party only won 27 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg in March, around 40 percent of voters said at the time they still intended to vote for the CDU in next fall’s election.
And the AfD, which is riven by internal conflicts, may struggle to do as well nationally as they do at a regional level.
The party has used a double strategy of appearing radical in the eastern states but more moderate in the western part of the country. That could be harder to pull off nationally. “Some will find them too radical and some will find them too conservative, and that will become a burden for the party,” Mr. Arzheimer predicted.
Nationally the refugees, as well as issues like Islamist terror, integration and immigration, will likely dominate next year's federal campaign.
“The (refugee) issue is one that has really divided the country,” Mr. Koschkar said. “It is a decisive issue for all voters, the AfD, but also for the Greens, the SPD, the CDU.”
And it’s an issue that will continue to mobilize many voters, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and nationally: “Not just for the AfD but also against it,” he said.
As for Ms. Merkel, she will continue to be judged on the basis of her promise: “We can do this.” More terror attacks or another spike in refugees could make life more difficult for her.
“The challenges will be similar to those posed by reunification,” Mr. Koschkar said. “It will be a long and difficult process, and it’s clear that her stance on this is going to be closely watched right up until the federal election.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers German politics. To contact her: [email protected].