Germany’s Merkel down but far from out
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted her government made some mistakes when it opened its borders to a million refugees on Monday, a day after her party suffered a new loss in a region that also saw surge in support for anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The Berlin election saw losses for the country’s two traditional mainstream parties, who governed in a coalition: the Social Democrats (SPD), which took 21.6 percent of Sunday’s vote, and Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which took 17.6 percent.
Both scores were down significantly since the last election in 2011, when the SPD took 28.3 percent and the CDU 23.2 percent of the vote.
The AfD, which didn’t even exist in 2011, placed fifth overall with 14.2 percent of the vote.
“I take my share of the responsibility that lies with me as party chairwoman and chancellor,” a candid Merkel told reporters on Monday in remarks moving away from her former defence of her government’s open refugee policy.
The chancellor said she would do things differently if it were possible to go back in time and rethink its approach to the roughly one million migrants who entered Germany over the past year, many of them fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
“If I could, I would turn back the time by many, many years,” Merkel said.
AfD gains are national, not regional
However, the results in Berlin State itself do not reflect a massive rejection of the government’s open policy.
Although the AfD will enter the region’s parliament, the actual outcome is a shift to the left, with the SPD expected to govern in a coalition with at least two other left-wing parties.
“There are also quite a few subjects specifically about Berlin and the way this city has been run,” says Almut Möller, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who explains debates in the campaigns centred on infrastructure and public administration more than immigration.
“While I would acknowledge that the AfD gaining quite a bit of ground would suggest it’s related to the refugee crisis, there are some areas where I think we should not come to that conclusion.”
Merkel’s response appears rather to address the AfD’s consistent appearance across regional lines, namely coming two weeks after the anti-immigration party scored higher than the CDU in Merkel’s stronghold, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
“[The AfD] are benefitting from a national wave of scepticism towards refugees and whether Germany can successfully integrate the well over a million refugees it’s taken in over the last eighteen months or so,” says Daniel Hough, a professor of politics with the Institute for German Studies at the University of Sussex.
“That means the AfD has done well everywhere, in cosmopolitan cities like Berlin, where there is a degree of doubt about the potential to integrate these people, and in rural, much quieter places like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the worry there is more of the unknown.”
Merkel looking to come out stronger
By taking on such a rueful tone, Merkel is wagering the CDU has time to show voters her government is able to handle the refugee issue differently before national elections in September 2017.
“She’s putting all her cards into her own person and her own credibility,” Möller says.
“And to be fair, she has already demonstrated over the past months that the refugee policy change was one she could pursue, that migrants have stopped coming in large numbers and that politics can steer and push back against what was perceived as a lack of order.”
On top of that, the CDU is polling far ahead of the second-place SPD at the national level.
“[The CDU] has twelve months to regroup and to start thinking about how it can form a government again with the SPD at the national level,” Hough explains.
“It won’t want to work with the AfD, it will look either for a grand coalition with the SPD or possibly a coalition with the Greens. Either way, the AfD is a pain in the neck, but in no way is it an existential threat.”