Merkel’s Far-Right Conundrum

Recently, Germany held two regional elections that may foretell doom for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat (CDU) party in Germany’s 2017 federal election as well as for Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. The CDU’s two setbacks in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin elections can be explained by the recent rise of the rightwing populist party, Alternative for Germany (AFD). AFD has been campaigning on a platform opposed to Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which faces the enormous task of integrating over a million refugees into German society. In early September, the Christian Democrats placed third in Merkel’s own regional constituency, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. CDU placed behind the Social Democrats (SPD) in first and the three-year AFD in second, which gained 30.5% and 20.9% of the vote, respectively. While CDU’s loss in this region won’t impact the current administration’s composition, it has been largely seen as a symbolic victory for AFD and its anti-refugee rhetoric, especially considering Mecklenburg-Vorpommern makes up Angela Merkel’s own constituency. Despite this blow caused by AFD’s symbolic victory, the Christian Democrats experienced an even larger wake up call a few weeks later in Berlin, a notorious stronghold for the Social and Christian Democrats, where AFD, with 12.2% of the vote took third behind the Christian Democrats with 17.8% of the vote and the Social Democrats with 22.8% of the vote. While both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats claimed victory in Berlin, many are calling it a meager win. For AFD, a fledgling and fringe political party, to do so well in Berlin signals that the far-right now has an opportunity to jump onto Germany’s national stage in its next federal election.

AFD’s victory over the Christian Democrats marks an impressive rise for the right-wing populists. They are now represented in ten state parliaments and show no sign of stopping or slowing down. AFD leaders state that their victories in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern amount to a de facto referendum on Germany’s open-door policy to refugees. Prime Minister Merkel has been steadfast in defending her open-door policy. However, as her party bleeds voters to AFD, she has begun to signal that she may begin walking away from asylum seekers. As much of Europe becomes weary of the refugee crisis and dubious of its capacity to accept more, it now appears that Germany has also reached its limit. However, the question remains just how much Germany’s recent regional elections will impact the Grand Coalition between Merkel’s party and the Social Democrats that have defined German politics since 2013. If the far-right continues to surge as it has in Germany and other European countries then surely this Grand Coalition will falter. Currently, the world is looking to Angela Merkel to see whether she will accept the backlash against the open door policy or if she will stand strong and continue championing Germany’s dedication to refugees. Both stances will have profound effects on German and European politics.

AFD was founded in 2013 as a response to the Eurozone debt crisis and Angela Merkel’s policies towards it. At its founding, it was primarily composed of liberal academics and economists who opposed Merkel’s Eurozone bail out policies. In September of 2013, AFD were not able to win the 5% of the national vote needed to secure seats in the German parliament, however those days have largely changed with AFD now polling at more than 10% in national opinion polls. This remarkable surge of support since 2013 is no accident. Party leaders of AFD purposely focused at wooing xenophobic voters through the use the use of fear and paranoia during the peak of the refugee crisis. This is evidenced through the party’s link with the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) movement, which has recently created a political party of its own, and is further exemplified by their shared commitment to work together to bring their anti-refugee platform to the federal level within Germany. Pegida is famous for its right-wing and hateful rhetoric that often electrifies the many protests against refugees and Islam it carries out in Europe. More recently the group attempted to boycott Kinder chocolate after the company began a marketing campaign that contained pictures of two children of African and Middle Eastern descent. Little did members of the movement know, the boys were actually German footballers. This illustrates just how quickly this movement’s Islamophobia and xenophobia can take hold. In addition to being affiliated with xenophobic groups, the leaders of AFD themselves have been accused of both Islamophobia and anti-semitism. The newly-elected AFD senator from Berlin, Kay Nerstheimer has recently taken fire from critics for both calling civilian victims of the Nazi regime “guerrilla fighters” that were not protected under international law and downplaying the atrocities of the Nazis. Nerstheimer has also referred to Syrian refugees as “disgusting vermin” and as “parasites that feed off the juices of the German people.” Despite AFD originally arising as a response to the Eurozone bailouts, they have now pivoted to scapegoating refugees as a way to power; and it’s working. The only question is exactly how much it will change the political landscape of German politics, and subsequently, that of the European Union.

Immediately after the Berlin elections, it appeared that Angela Merkel began backpedaling on her open-door refugee policy due to the rise of AFD in what was traditionally a bastion for the Christian and Social Democrats’ Grand Coalition. In a press conference, Chancellor Merkel expressed regret for Germany’s open-door policy stating, “If I could, I would go back in time to be better prepared for the refugee crisis in 2015, for which we were rather unprepared.” She’s also signaled that she is willing to be flexible regarding the policy’s future by stating, “If I knew what change in refugee policy the people in Germany want, I would be prepared to consider it.” This shows just how Merkel, who has previously been a staunch defender of the open-door policy, has been taken aback by the unexpected potency of the AFD. It also subtly shows just how much of a threat the AFD is for the Grand Coalition of the Christian and Social democrats in Germany’s federal elections. However, after these statements Merkel has continued on to say that she does “not see a change of course, but coherent work over many, many months” in regards to Germany’s refugee policy. These opposing statements make it unclear exactly how Merkel will move forward concerning refugees and AFD’s challenge to the Grand Coalition, however, Merkel’s stance will certainly have implications for Germany’s 2017 federal election.

The rise of the AFD has many questioning whether Chancellor Merkel will lead the Christian Democrats as their nominee for chancellor next year. Merkel has not yet publicly stated whether she will “stand again in next year’s general election,” and the growing disquiet around her chancellorship could create many challengers for her in the election, not just from the AFD, but even within her own party. If Merkel stands by her refugee policy and the AFD continues to surge it would not be surprising to see a candidate within the Christian Democrats challenge her for the chancellorship. This would be incredibly damaging for the Christian Democrats and would all but guarantee the fracture of the Grand Coalition and victory of the AFD. However, Merkel may still back down as the AFD gains political power in a move to win back voters and lick the CDU’s political wounds. The Grand Coalition may still survive, but it would concede a symbolic AFD victory as the country shifts right on refugee policy. Lastly, Merkel may concede her leadership and let her party choose a new standard bearer. This would allow her to continue standing strong on her refugee policy while at the same time let her party distance itself from the policy to save the Grand Coalition.

Regardless of Merkel’s next steps and the outcome of Germany’s 2017 elections, the surprising power of AFD’s challenge to the Christian and Social democrats spell a dark future for German politics, but also for European politics as other European countries also deal with their own far-right political party challenges. Racist politics have once again made their way into Europe’s most progressive policies and the unfortunate victims will be war-weary men, women, and children looking for an escape from violence.