German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to continue her open-door migration policy — despite heavy losses in regional elections that were widely regarded as a referendum on that very policy.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was defeated in two out of the three federal states voting on March 13. By contrast, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — an upstart anti-establishment party campaigning against Merkel's liberal migration policy — surged to double-digit results in all three states: Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.
In a press conference after the election results were in, Merkel remained defiant. She reprimanded German voters for questioning her handling of the migration crisis: "There are people who did not listen to us at all and simply cast protest votes. We need to solve this [migrant] problem, not through theoretical debates, but by finding a [European] solution to the problem."
The elections were the most important in Germany since Merkel allowed more than one million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East to enter the country in 2015. Merkel's migration policy is causing security mayhem in Germany, where mostly Muslim migrants are raping and assaulting women and children with virtual impunity.
With immigration now the dominant issue in German politics, Merkel's refusal to reverse her open-door migration policy has alienated many of her traditional supporters, scores of whom are flocking to the AfD to protest Germany's pro-immigration, pro-EU political establishment.
The AfD was founded as a Eurosceptic party in 2013 by German economists advocating the abolition of the European single currency, the euro, and opposing financial bailouts of profligate eurozone countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
At the time, the AfD was widely ridiculed by Germany's mainstream media. In July 2013, for example, the Rheinische Post published an "analysis" which referred to the AfD as the "unlucky professor's party" that "does not have many chances" as a political party. Nevertheless, in 2014 and 2015, the AfD secured seats in five of Germany's 16 regional parliaments, and seven seats in the European Parliament.
After an internal power struggle, Frauke Petry — a 40-year-old chemist, entrepreneur and mother of four who hails from the former East Germany — assumed leadership of the AfD in July 2015. Since then, Petry has broadened the party's initial focus on economics to immigration.
The AfD — now the third-largest party in Germany — poses a significant challenge to the political status quo in Germany. If its momentum holds, the AfD is on track to cross the 5% threshold in general elections in 2017 to qualify for seats in the national legislature, the Bundestag.
The left-leaning German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, long hostile toward the AfD, acknowledged that the party has achieved a "breakthrough" and called the election result "Black Sunday" for Merkel:
"For a long time she had hoped, despite considerable popular opposition to her refugee policy, to win two chancelleries in the southwest of the country. This has come to nothing. Merkel will now have to live with the accusation that she has allowed the AfD finally to establish itself [as a democratic alternative] to the right of the CDU."
The leader of the AfD, Frauke Petry, said the fact that her party won big in two states in western Germany — Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate — showed that "the AFD is an all-German party and that citizens in all regions of Germany want a change of politics." In a Facebook post, she added:
"Yesterday we made a first important step in the right direction to break the cartels of consensus parties. Already, it has been indicated that they [mainstream parties] will not accept the will of the people. We will probably see the most colorful combination of political coalitions, just so they can continue to stay in power and further marginalize voters of the AfD."
Petry was referring to Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, who said that despite her electoral drubbing, Merkel will not reverse course on migration:
"The Federal Government will continue to pursue its refugee policy, with full determination, at home and abroad. At home, we will ease the path to integrate those people who have sought and found protection here. At European level, the goal must be a common, sustainable European solution that leads to a reduction in the number of refugees in all member states of the European Union."
The CDU's general secretary, Peter Tauber, echoed the view that there is no alternative to Merkel's migration policy: "Considering what we have already achieved, I recommend that we continue on the path we are on."
Some German commentators have tried to downplay the AfD's gains by arguing that although Merkel lost the election, she actually won the election because the majority of Germans voted for mainstream parties. Bernd Ulrich, editor of Die Zeit, wrote:
"These three elections, which were in fact a plebiscite on the refugee policy, sent an encouraging message of approval. On average, two-thirds of voters cast ballots for parties that support the relatively liberal refugee policies of Angela Merkel."
Writing in Der Spiegel, columnist Jakob Augstein argued:
"On Sunday Angela Merkel achieved an unlikely feat: her party was trounced, but her refugee policy was confirmed and strengthened... How did the chancellor do on Election Day? In truth, she has been strengthened. The fact is: a large majority of voters support the chancellor."
According to Augstein, Merkel is "the right woman in the wrong party" because she has moved the center-right CDU to the left on so many issues, including migration policy, that the party is now virtually indistinguishable from its coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). What Augstein failed to mention is that Merkel's move to the left is responsible for creating a political vacuum to the right of the CDU — a vacuum that is now being filled by the AfD.
German media are also churning out stories — many of which are based on hearsay — aimed at discrediting the AfD. The magazine, Stern, published this headline: "Reports of Nazi Songs at AfD-Election Party." The Berliner Kurier: "Former Teacher Calls AfD Leader Frauke Petry a Liar." Die Welt: "AfD Candidate Accused of Running Escort Service." Berliner Morgenpost: "After AfD Coup, Saxony-Anhalt's Hoteliers Are Anxious." Stern: "AfD and Donald Trump: Hate is the Main Issue." Die Zeit: "AfD Principles: Not So Important."
On Election Day, Die Zeit ridiculed the AfD's 70-point political platform by using the following bullet points:
"More popular referendums, more monitoring of citizens, stiffer penalties for criminals, dissolve the EU, shrink the state, lower taxes, cut social spending, put women back in the kitchen, ban employment quotas for women, make it harder to file for divorce, abolish abortion, close borders, harass Muslims, ruin the climate, expand nuclear power, expand the military, more private weapons, etc."
Taxpayer-funded ZDF public television broadcast an interview with Thomas Kliche, a German psychologist, who compared AfD voters to "children who are stubborn and unreasonable." The only way to deal with such people, he said, is "just have patience, ignore the stupidity, and confront it with rationalism."
According to Kliche, AfD voters are suffering from "macro-social stress" induced by globalization (i.e., mass migration):
"People react with various forms of shock management. This begins with retrograde, regressive, childish fantasies that everything can be as it was before. Some believe that by shouting 'We are the People!' [the main slogan of anti-government demonstrators in East Germany in 1989-1990, reminding their leaders that Germany should be ruled by the people, not by an undemocratic party claiming to represent them], the migrants will disappear.... They have no solutions, just fantasies. Building a fence — this is a fantasy. Separate yourself from the world — that is a fantasy."
Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has called on German intelligence to begin monitoring the AfD, presumably in an effort to silence critics of the government's migration policy. Gabriel — who leads the SPD, which also suffered significant losses on March 13 — has called the AfD a party of "right-wing extremists" who "use the language of the Nazis." At the same time, Gabriel has called for Germany to take in even more migrants by airlifting them into the country directly from the Middle East.
By contrast, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Socialist Union (CSU), the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, said the rise of the AfD amounts to a "tectonic shift in the political landscape of Germany." He warned that tectonic shifts trigger earthquakes that cause irreversible changes. Seehofer demanded that Merkel reverse course: "It cannot be that after such an election result, the answer to the electorate is: everything will go on as before."
CSU politician Hans-Peter Uhl summed it up this way: "I expect the chancellor clearly to admit: 'Yes, we have understood. We are going to return to the voters. Politics must move toward the voter, not the other way around. This is called democracy.'"
Merkel has not said if she plans to run for a fourth term in 2017.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. His first book, Global Fire, will be out in 2016.