They call it “Super Sunday,” but for Angela Merkel this weekend’s three regional elections are likely to be anything but super.
A total of 12 million voters in three states are going to the polls on Sunday to elect their regional parliaments. And with the refugee crisis dominating the political agenda, the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democrats are in for something of a drubbing.
Ms. Merkel and her party are bracing themselves for a bruising encounter with an electorate frustrated with the government’s handling of the refugee crisis.
While the CDU may not actually lose control of any states, they are increasingly unlikely to recapture two that they had pinned their hopes on. Furthermore their vote is undoubtedly going to be eroded considerably, largely due to the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany.
Nationally the CDU is polling at 35 percent, down from a peak of 41 percent at the last election in 2013, while the upstart AfD is polling at around 10 percent.
Sunday’s trio of elections will be the first time the voters have had a say since the massive influx of refugees began late last summer, which led to over 1 million people arriving in the country in just one year. And while the state elections have limited the practical impact on federal politics, party strategists and analysts will be pouring over the results to try to discern just how much faith the electorate has in Ms. Merkel’s handling of the crisis.
Ms. Merkel has stubbornly stuck to her refusal to set upper limits to the number of people allowed to apply for asylum, while searching for other solutions to the crisis. Her two-pronged approach of looking for a European solution to stem the influx, while trying to ensure those with no right to asylum are more speedily processed, has yet to bear fruit.
Furthermore the sexual assaults on a number of women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, including by some migrant men, lead many people to doubt her insistence that “We can do it.”
Barely a week before the vote, the chancellor had to urge party activists to take heart despite the slide in the polls, saying: "It will pay off in the end."
It will pay off in the end. Angela Merkel, Chancellor
Yet, that is not soon enough for many worried voters and the party most likely to profit from those concerns on Sunday is the AfD, which is expected to enter all three state parliaments.
The refugee crisis has been a boon for the small party that was formed in 2013 by a group of euroskeptic professors opposed to Germany’s participation in the Greek bailouts and the euro. While last year it looked as though it might fade into irrelevance as it became caught up in a bitter power struggle, it has since ousted its founder, Bernd Lucke. Under the new leader, the young charismatic eastern German Frauke Petry, the party has shifted to the populist right.
It may now be a one-issue party, focused almost exclusively on immigration, but that issue is the one dominating the political and media agenda.
“The political discourse favors the AfD,” said Timo Lochocki, a politics expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Basically this is a perfect breeding ground for a right-wing populist party.”
While it has sought to present itself as democratically legitimate, recent comments by Ms. Petry and her deputy Beatrix von Storch that illegal immigrants should be shot at on the borders, has shown that its radical wing seems to be taking the upper hand.
Those kinds of comments may shock the mainstream, but they have done little to thwart the party’s steady rise, particularly in the former East.
In fact the party is polling at 18 percent in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the CDU currently rules in coalition with the center-left Social Democrats. Although the CDU is likely to lose votes, it should still emerge as the biggest party and most likely will again head the state government there.
According to Kai Arzheimer, politics professor at the University of Mainz, the strong support for the AfD in eastern Germany is the result of a number of factors. “The turnout is much lower (there), and that helps the non-established parties. Furthermore, party identification is much weaker than in western Germany. That means there are far more floating voters who will try out new parties,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “On top of that there is a lot more rejection of refugees than in the West.”
He pointed out that even if the AfD achieved 20 percent, they will not get into government as no other party wants to cooperate with them.
More worrying perhaps is the fact that the party is also polling well in the western states. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the wealthy wine-growing region that borders France and Belgium, the party is garnering 9 percent support, while in Baden-Württemberg, the affluent southwestern state that is home to many carmakers such as Daimler and Porsche, it is in the double digits, predicted to win 11 percent.
And it could do even better. The party surpassed expectations in municipal elections in the western state of Hesse last weekend, winning 13.2 percent of the vote.
In the west, the AfD is pursuing a more moderate line, hoping to attract conservatives that no longer feel represented by the CDU. That is not just because of the refugee crisis but the way Ms. Merkel has pushed the party to the center. “For many it’s also issues like getting rid of military conscription, the end of nuclear power, the recognition of same-sex marriages, paid parental leave,” said Mr. Arzheimer. “Here the CDU has given up positions they held for decades.”
However, many commentators predict that the AfD will see their fortunes wane if the refugee crisis fades from the headlines.
“Whether the refugee and integration issue will dominate the German debate over the next two years, is difficult to predict,” Mr. Lochocki told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
And even if the party manages to make it into the Bundestag in the elections in 2017, it is unlikely to make much impact on government formation. The CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, will still form the biggest group. The presence of the AfD may mean that its only option is to reenter into the current coalition with the SPD. However, it could conceivably also form alliances with the Greens or the pro-business Free Democrats, who are also likely to reenter the parliament after failing to make it over the 5-percent hurdle in 2013.
However, 2017 is a long way off, and if the CDU gets a bloody nose on Sunday, then Ms. Merkel will face an increasingly angry party.
It is not just the AfD that will cause problems for the party. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD has managed to narrow the gap with the CDU after an unconvincing campaign by the leading candidate, Julia Klöckner, the 43-year-old rising star who had been tipped as a possible successor to Ms. Merkel. However, Ms. Klöckner sought to distance herself from the chancellor’s refugee policy, proposing upper limits on refugee numbers. That was regarded by many voters as unconvincing and blatant opportunism. Her opponent, the popular outgoing state premier, Malu Dreyer of the SPD, pounced on this seeming disloyalty, and accused her of stabbing the chancellor in the back. The two parties are now neck-and-neck on 35 percent.
In Baden-Württemberg, the CDU also ran a bad campaign. When it lost power there in 2011 in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was still by far the biggest party, winning just under 40 percent in a traditional stronghold that it had governed continuously for almost 60 years. Now, it is polling at 27 percent, embarrassingly falling behind the Green party, which rules in a coalition with the SPD.
The CDU lead candidate, Guido Wolf, is unpopular and had little luck presenting himself as a viable alternative to the hugely popular Green premier, Winfried Kretschmann. Mr. Wolf has got himself caught in knots trying to distance himself from the chancellor’s refugee policy without appearing disloyal. Furthermore, Mr. Kretschmann’s eco-centrist policies and gruff manner have won over many voters and his own approval ratings are around 70 percent. The Green leader has also been a big fan of Ms. Merkel’s refugee approach, so much so that the chancellor had to appeal to voters to vote CDU not Greens in the state if they back her policies.
As such even if the CDU do badly in these two western states, it may not be all down to Ms. Merkel and her refugee policies, but equally the fault of the misguided campaign strategies by the regional parties.
Furthermore, the chancellor’s own approval ratings have even started to rebound, with the latest polls giving her 50 percent personal approval, up 2 percent since the last such poll, compared to just 13 percent for the SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel.
Nevertheless, this will be little comfort for the party grassroots, many of whom have not supported the government’s refugee policies. They will be rightly concerned about the string of other state elections that lie between Sunday and the federal elections in September 2017 and a particularly bad result this weekend could see them try to push the chancellor to rethink her refugee policy.
“The pressure will certainly increase if the results are very bad,” Mr. Arzheimer said. “I would very much doubt that it would lead to a change in direction. It’s not that Merkel is saying let’s let all the refugees into Germany. She is trying to reduce the numbers and find a European solution.”
“The obvious alternative would be to cancel the Schengen Treaty and close the German borders,” Mr. Arzheimer said. “But I believe the view of this government … would be that this would be far worse than losing a few percentage points to the AfD.”
Furthermore, things could start to turn around for Ms. Merkel. The Balkan route into Western Europe is effectively closed off, which has already seen the refugee numbers subside, and an agreement with Turkey is in the works to halt the flow into Europe.
“Nobody expects the CDU and CSU to regain major strength before the German public have had time to conceive of her plan working out,” Mr. Lochocki argued.
Ms. Merkel’s hold on power depends on whether her approach starts to bear fruit over the coming months and whether that, in turn, helps her Christian Democrats regain support in the polls.
“If the CDU and CSU gain strength and the AfD loses strength then there is little reason for an internal party debate,” Mr. Lochocki said. “However, if they continue to drop in the polls and the AfD continues to do well over the summer, then the debate could take up some speed.”