Europe’s leading politician is in trouble. Chancellor Angela Merkel won three elections during the golden years of the last decade in Germany but the shine has come off. Results from regional elections prove how much the woman known as ‘Mutti’, or Mum, has been tarnished by her handling of the refugee problem.
The result from the regional election in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is further proof of how a significant proportion of the German electorate wants to punish Ms Merkel after she welcomed more than a million migrants into Germany last year. The far right anti-immigration AfD (Alternative for Germany) party has surged in support across the country and is now represented in 9 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments.
There’s another election in Berlin a week on Sunday and another poor result may lead to the leadership of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), contemplating if they want to go into next year’s national election with her at the helm. Public support has collapsed from a 63% approval rating last year to 45% now.
Should she fall, the EU would be deprived of the outstanding European politician of the century. From a British perspective Prime Minister May would be deprived of a pragmatic negotiating partner as the UK ‘Brexits’ , one who, if the price is right, would not necessarily refuse a unique status deal for the UK. The position of a post Merkel Germany would be partially dependent on who took power.
Don’t write off Ms Merkel yet. She’s a brilliant politician and although she spoke with her heart last summer, she may speak with her head in an election year. She may be able to survive more humiliation this month. The bigger test comes next May in the more important North Rhine –Westphalia election. If she loses there- she probably loses power.
So, she probably has 8 months to turn things around and ensure she is in place to stand for a fourth term in the national election next September.
The AfD says Ms Merkel’s party is ‘falling apart’. It isn’t. But it is wobbling. Its sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, is particularly angry about last year’s ‘open door’ policy, but already Merkel and the CSU are beginning to row back. The flawed, and fragile, EU deal with Turkey has reduced the flow of migrants into Germany as have the policies of countries to the south who have tightened their border controls. Germany has seriously toughened up its criteria for offering asylum, accelerated the deportation process, and Ms Merkel has accepted that “many people do not have our confidence regarding the refugee question….one must take the concerns and fears of people seriously”.
We can expect more of this in the coming months as she tacks to the right to try and shore up the conservative vote.
Her competition is not really in the extreme right, or left, fringes. Despite AfD’s gains most of the political battle in German politics remains in the centre ground.
There is no heir apparent to Ms Merkel, and 45% approval ratings are not bad after three terms in office and a difficult year. If she can survive next May’s regional election she will probably lead the CDU/CSU coalition to victory in the national election and then form a government with the centre left Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD remains way behind the CDU, struggles to hit back at Merkel over immigration, and lacks genuine partners with which it could form its own grand coalition.
The real meaning of Sunday’s result in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is that it will push Merkel slightly to the right over the next year, but equally importantly, it will give a boost to every far right party inside the EU.
When the result became apparent on Sunday the leader of the French Front Natonal, Marine le Pen tweeted – “That which was impossible yesterday has become possible.”