UCL European Institute


Are Merkel's "open arms" really the problem?

15 March 2016, 12:00 am

Angela Merkel

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In many respects, the results of yesterday's regional elections in three German Länder-Saxony-Anhalt in the East, Rhineland-Palatinate in the West, and Baden-Württemberg in the South-make for grim reading. As national and international headlines were quick to highlight, the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been stunning and dismaying in equal measure.
15 March 2016
Dr Uta Staiger

Overnight, it not only became the second or third strongest force in three state parliaments where it had thus far no representation at all; in Saxony-Anhalt, it gained nearly a fourth of the vote. With Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union (CDU) losing seats in all three states, the New York Times for one believes she now faces the "toughest challenges of her political career."
The AfD had run on an explicitly anti-refugee platform. Its spokeswoman Frauke Petry recently suggested police should be allowed to use firearms against irregular migrants crossing into Germany. The AfD's dramatic rise thus certainly seems to indicate a strident rebuke of Chancellor Merkel's migration policy. Along with most commentators, the leader of Merkel's Bavarian sister party (CSU), Horst Seehofer, was quick to lay the blame. He singled out Merkel's "open arms policy" towards refugees, which has seen well over 1 million enter the country over the last year, as the cause of this "tectonic shift" in Germany's political panorama.

However, the results arguably offer a more complex-if perhaps no less disquieting-picture.

To begin with, the AfD is not your usual, run-of-the-mill party of the radical right. It was founded in 2013 by disaffected CDU party affiliates-a professor of economics and two well-known conservative journalists-as a virtually single-issue party, opposed above all to the euro and to guaranteeing foreign debt. Wracked by internal power struggles and seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history when one of its founders withdrew from the party only last year, it has since swerved much more radically towards a populist right, marrying full-blown market liberalism with open nationalism, hard conservative social values and a fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric. It may even leave-or be expulsed from-its group in the European Parliament, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), moving to join Nigel Farage's Europe of Freedom and Democracy instead.

However, not unlike the German anti-Islam Pegida movement which has divided the country's public and with which it remains associated, the AfD has surprised public opinion by attracting support from not just from a core, far right commune. It has reached across educational, class, gender and age divides. Indeed, against received wisdom, the significant voter turnout-61 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt and a spectacular 70 per cent in the western Länder-has benefitted, not hampered the populist party. Saxony-Anhalt's AfD candidate Andre Poggenburg proudly claimed this as a democratic achievement: "we have mobilised many non-voters to take part in the election, which the established parties have failed to do."

And the AfD's success is above all a warning shot for "the establishment." As an exit poll commissioned by one of Germany's public broadcasters found, over two thirds of voters chose the AfD because they were disillusioned with the other political parties. Only between 22 per cent and 31 per cent voted for the party because its programme convinced them. Party spokeswoman Petry even rejected the far right label, emphasising her party's appeal to "considerable droves" of Christian Democrat, Social Democrats and even Far Left voters.

Not only should this provide much food for thought for all centre-ground political parties. It also provides the three state parliaments with a significant dilemma. Including the AfD in any governing coalition is clearly anathema, and all other parties were quick to distance themselves from the mere thought. But dismissing its voters out of hand as the radical margins of the electorate brings its own risks-with now not insignificant representation in parliament, it may risk further alienating a swathe of the electorate and confirm their suspicions about the political establishment.

Can one then hope this is just a "temporary phenomenon," as Angela Merkel seemed to think only last week? Historical precedents with German far-right parties in the 1990s certainly allow for this possibility - the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) in Saxony-Anhalt in 1998 being a prime example of just how short-lived a trend such an "electoral earthquake" can be. And its lack of concrete, real-political or sensible policy proposals as how to deal with Europe's refugee crisis does not commend the AfD for more than a protest vote. However, with representation in now eight regional parliaments, what we may be witnessing is a fragmentation of the political Right, which might affect Germany's political landscape in the medium and long term. Indeed, the AfD is perhaps an indication of a wider trend of anti-establishment parties who were successful in the 2014 European Parliament elections, and have since managed to build on that support in regional polls.

Of course, the established party of the Left, the Social Democrats, were the real losers of Sunday's elections, ground between the Far Left and the Greens - its win in the traditional heartland of the Rhineland-Palatinate notwithstanding. But now the CDU too has lost a part of its following to a party on its right wing. A no longer marginal part of the electorate has given representative democracy's model of bargaining and coalition, compromise and consensus short thrift, opting instead for a position of protest that is also syphoning off votes from the conservative right.

But not all is gloom and doom. The conservative candidates who were most soundly beaten were those who had openly criticised the Chancellor's refugee policy-in particular Julia Klöckner, once considered a potential successor to Merkel. She lost to the incumbent Social Democrat in Rineland-Palatinate - who had clearly come out in favour of the government's refugee policy. Therefore, while Merkel will indeed face a renewed, more urgent call from within her party over her response to the refugee crisis, she can demonstrate that those within her party who are at odds with her course have not managed to translate this into political capital, quite the contrary. In addition, one should keep in mind that regional elections are second order elections in which government parties-particularly those of a "grand coalition"-are often punished for perceived shortcomings.

Last but not least, it is Baden-Württemberg that is perhaps the most interesting case of them all. The soundly conservative Land, in which the CDU had reigned unchallenged for 58 years, gave a historical electoral victory to the Greens with a resounding 30.3 per cent of the vote. This may be largely due to its charismatic incumbent leader Winfried Kretschmann, who had been in coalition with the leftist SPD after first stunning electoral expectations in the state five years ago. Yet not only had he run, as one would expect, on a pro-refugee platform; he also passionately defended Merkel for it-going so far as to say he prayed for her well-being every day. He did not go wrong. Polls suggest that 76 per cent of those voting for the CDU approved of Kretschmann's support for Merkel's refugee policy. And what is more, 30 per cent of the voters who had switched to his party from the Conservatives cited his stance on the refugee crisis as the primary cause.

Make no mistake, the rise of the AfD is another, deeply worrying indicator that populist politics is sweeping Europe, feeding on anti-immigration and anti-refugee anxiety, and incorporating a vague, but strongly felt rejection of "the establishment." It further fragments the political landscape in Germany and will make governing coalitions ever more difficult. However, on whether this is a popular indictment of Merkel's refugee policy, or more, on whether it might signal a tectonic shift to the right in a country where such moves call up more historical spectres than anywhere else, the jury is still out.