But even after the local branch of her Christian Democratic Union party was overtaken by far-right newcomers Alternative for Germany (AfD) in a regional election, the Chancellor still remains on course for a fourth term in office. Going into a crucial election year, Germany’s political observers are best advised to keep calm — and ‘Merkel’ on.
On Monday morning, Merkel broke with the unwritten rule of not commenting on domestic politics on visits abroad. In a statement read out from the sidelines of the G20 summit, the Chancellor assumed responsibility for the disastrous election result.
Sunday’s vote was a regional state election, but it was not about local issues. Instead, popular opposition to Merkel’s open-door policy for migrants last summer was the key factor benefitting the AfD. Understandably, the immediate focus has therefore been on the drubbing that the CDU took. Commentators, investors, and Germany’s international partners are worried; Is Germany becoming Euroskeptic? Is Europe’s most powerful leader on her way out?
What is certain however is that German politics is becoming interesting again. After ten years of almost unchallenged authority, Merkel will finally have to put in a fight to secure a fourth term in office in the September 2017 Bundestag elections to overtake her mentor-turned-foe, Germany’s Uber-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who governed for an unrivalled 16 years. But even after Sunday’s poll verdict, Merkel will likely succeed.
The strong AfD result was no flash in the pan, both given the recent polls and the traditional strength of the populists in East Germany. Voters’ party allegiances are still weak in the country’s former communist regions, and the economy is less robust. The ten percentage point rise in local turnout on Sunday has benefitted the AfD more than any transfer of votes from other parties, including the CDU.
But Merkel’s real competition is not so much based on the rightist fringes anyway. Instead, it is all about the political center, where Merkel’s true challengers in the 2017 Bundestag elections are located, and they have hardly fared much better than her CDU.
The Social Democrats (SPD) retain the regional premiership in Schwerin — but they have incurred losses even bigger than Merkel’s party. In the national polls, they remain hopelessly behind the CDU. Trapped in a grand coalition with Merkel (as a party of the center-left), they struggle to criticize the chancellor over immigration. The SPD is not benefitting from the emerging split on the political right.
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