Refugee crisis overshadows German politics
London - “If I could, I would turn back time by many, many years to better prepare myself and the whole German government for the situation that reached us unprepared in late summer 2015,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in reference to the refugee crisis that has come to define her 11-year chancellorship.
She was speaking following a meeting with leaders of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin after a state election that saw her party, beset by criticism over her refugee policy, slump to its lowest level since 1990. With federal elections set for 2017, Germany is bracing for a period of intense political jockeying.
The CDU dropped 5.6 percentage points to 17.5% of the vote in Berlin state elections, behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), which won 21.6% of the vote, and ahead of the left-wing Die Linke party, which received 15.7%, potentially setting up Berlin for its first left-wing triple coalition between the SPD, Die Linke and the Green Party, which came fourth.
The far-right anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is set to enter Berlin’s state parliament for the first time after winning 14.1% of the vote. Exit polls indicated that 98% of those who supported the AfD cited migration and the refugee crisis as the most important issue for them.
This was the second recent electoral defeat for Merkel’s CDU, which finished third behind the SPD and the AfD in elections in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern earlier in September, leading many political observers to raise questions about the party’s future.
Merkel pledged to win back the trust of voters in an unusually frank speech in which she acknowledged that she had made mistakes. However, she did not distance herself from an open-door refugee policy that has upended German and European politics.
“If one of the reasons for the CDU’s poor showing is that the direction, goal and conviction behind our refugee policy haven’t been explained well enough. I’ll endeavour to rectify that,” Merkel promised. She acknowledged that Germany and Germans faced challenges integrating refugees and immigrants but said this means that everybody would have to work harder at it.
“We weren’t exactly world champions in integration and we waited too long before we addressed the refugee issue. We have to get better, I do as well,” Merkel said.
With Merkel pledging to stay the course, observers questioned whether she would seek a fourth term as chancellor, given the CDU’s weak showing in recent state elections. Even if she does, the SPD — current coalition partners of Merkel’s CDU but also in electoral decline — could seek to field its own candidate.
Away from the political manoeuvring among Germany’s centre and left-wing parties, the far-right AfD has entered its tenth regional assembly of the country’s 16 states just three years after its creation, a warning sign ahead of elections for the Bundestag next year.
“In 2017, we will witness Angela Merkel fighting for her political life and the AfD will become the third largest political power in Germany — at the least,” AfD deputy leader Beatrix von Storch wrote on Facebook following the Berlin state election results.
AfD’s strong showing in Berlin demonstrates that the openly anti- Muslim party “doesn’t just trade off discontent in rural areas but can establish itself in a city of millions known for its open lifestyles”, the centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“The success of AfD is a wake-up call that it can’t be taken for granted that society is liberal and will remain so. Nor can it be taken for granted that minorities (and not only the refugees) are and will be respected,” warned German journalist and jurist Heribert Prantl in a commentary for Germany’s largest broadsheet newspaper.
But with Berlin Mayor Michael Muller, an SPD member, likening the AfD to the Nazi party in the run-up to the state elections, Germany can expect more politically charged language. A resurgent right wing will seek to exploit the refugee crisis for electoral gain and Merkel will have her work cut out if she wants to stop the CDU’s decline.