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Merkel under pressure after far-right gains in state election

Angela Merkel in Berlin on 28 July 2016.
Angela Merkel in Berlin on 28 July 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

German Chancellor Angela Merkel this Monday vowed to "win back trust" of voters over the handling of the migrant crisis after her party lost votes to the Action for Germany (AfD) party in a state election. The far-right party clinched almost 21 percent of the vote in the regional parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state on Sunday.


Merkel's right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was never expected to win this election. And it came in third with just 19 percent of the vote, behind the AfD at 21 percent and the Social Democrats (SPD) at 30 percent.

This is a shock for the German leader because the Islamophobic AfD, founded just over three years ago, is now represented in nine out of Germany's 16 state parliaments.

"In term of political symbolism it's definitely an earthquake," says Thorsten Benner, the director of the Global Public Policy Institute. "For her party, in her home state to come after the AfD is humiliating. It was also quite symbolic that Merkel was hit by the news as she was at the G20 summit in China. She'll have a lot of troubles in the next few weeks, as many in her party about upcoming elections."

The AfD's showing is widely blamed on Merkel's decision to accept one million refugees last year. The decision became even more controversial after sexual assaults blamed on north African men on New Year's Eve and a series of bloody attacks this summer, some claimed by the Islamic State armed group.

There's a sense, amongst part of the German population, that Germany cannot manage to integrate those refugees, despite what Merkel has promised.

Single-issue party

"I think the AfD is essentially a single-issue party," says Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at Kiel University. "It used to be about the euro crisis and the euro in general. But now it's basically all about refugees. When you ask why people vote for the AfD, they always say they're scared that so many refugees are in the country and scared of the spread of Islam that these people supposedly bring."

This is a worrying trend for Merkel. First it means the CSU, the CDU's sister party in  Bavaria, will step up demands for the German leader to change her refugee policy. And, much like France's National Front, the AfD managed to steal voters from both left-wing and right-wing parties and to get people who normally don't vote to cast their ballots.

The populist party is the first to establish itself in the German political landscape since World War II, after decades in which no such party crossed the five percent hurdle to enter national parliament.

Merkel defends migrant decision

"She will likely plough on but she'll try to make a better communication effort," says Thorsten Benner. "One of the startling thing is that, with regard to refugees, she has changed her policy quite significantly over the past year. She's now all about securing the EU's external borders, keeping as many migrants out as possible ... She hasn't communicated as forcefully as she could have on this because she was probably afraid of admiting she had changed course."

While Merkel on Monday accepted responsibility for the result, she still argues her choice of opening Germany's borders was the right one.

But she has to think about next year's federal elections and whether she will try to stay in the leader's seat. Merkel has not said anything yet but she is expected to run for a fourth term.

At national level the AfD is now polling at 14 percent according to a September survey, an increase of 10 points this year.

But Merkel still has strong personal support.

"People are saying that she's in crisis but she gets approval ratings that just about any other Western leader could only dream about," notes Marcel Dirsus. "I think there's really a split, because there's is a sense of crisis among some people and that she is to blame. But on the other hand, you have people saying 'Yes there might a crisis but in this moment we should turn to someone who has a steady hand'. And she embodies that perfectly."

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