What do Sunday’s German state elections mean for Merkel?

March 13, 2016
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, Belgium, as the bloc is looking to Ankara to help it curb the influx of refugees and migrants flowing into Europe, March 7, 2016.       REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, Belgium, as the bloc is looking to Ankara to help it curb the influx of refugees and migrants flowing into Europe, March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

German voters have finally spoken on Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and the news is anything but good for the German chancellor. Here is my quick take on the votes in the prosperous southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the western wine-making region of Rhineland Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in the east:

MERKEL – The exit polls suggest a worst-case scenario for Merkel, with losses for her CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland Palatinate, as well as a surge by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) in all three states. Particularly damaging is the loss of charismatic CDU candidate Julia Kloeckner in the Rhineland after months of leading in the polls. She desperately needed the win to consolidate her position as a possible successor to Merkel. Now she is essentially out of the running. Don’t believe the doomsayers who have suggested that Merkel could step down in response to a poor performance like this. But these results substantially narrow her room for manoeuvre. With an EU summit looming at the end of the week, she now faces greater pressure to bed down the controversial EU-Turkey deal she floated at the last summit. EU partners who are sceptical of this deal may feel emboldened to stand up to her after this show of domestic political weakness. Expect growing pressure from within her party. On balance, these state election results reduce the chances of Merkel running again in 2017, though developments in the refugee crisis over the next half year — notably the number of migrants entering Germany — will ultimately determine that.

ALTERNATIVE FOR GERMANY – The results establish this 3-year-old party as a force on the national scene and a veritable power in the east of the country. The AfD emerged as the second biggest party in Saxony-Anhalt with over 20 percent of the vote. In the other two states it appears on track for double-digits. No other party is willing to get into bed with the AfD. But as the National Front in France or Freedom Party in Austria have shown, populist right-wing parties can have a substantial influence on the national debate while in opposition. After a damaging year of infighting, the departure of the party’s founder and the shift from an anti-euro to an anti-immigrant message, the AfD seems here to stay.

SOCIAL DEMOCRATS  – The SPD appear to have averted disaster with the victory of popular incumbent Malu Dreyer in the Rhineland, a state the party has ruled for the past 25 years. But the numbers in the other two states that voted on Sunday were disastrous. In Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD came in fourth place for the first time in the post-war era, with roughly half the score of the AfD. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the SPD was roughly even with the AfD. Dreyer’s victory reduces the chances of a shakeup at the top of the SPD, but it is unlikely to silence criticism of party chairman Sigmar Gabriel nor put to rest a simmering debate within the party over its direction.

POLITICAL LANDSCAPE – It has taken longer in Germany than in many other European countries, but the state votes on Sunday suggest that the post-war political landscape is shifting. The CDU and SPD, known in Germany as the two “Volksparteien”, or people’s parties, because they have dominated the political arena for decades, saw their scores lurch lower in virtually all of the states. Meanwhile, the AfD has emerged as one of Germany’s strongest parties. Add in the Greens, far-left “Linke” and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), which appear to have made it into two of three state parliaments, and the German political landscape looks more fragmented than at any time since the war. This will make it more difficult to form coalitions at both regional and federal level. German politics has become less reliable and predictable.


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