German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a major blow on September 4 when the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged ahead of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in elections in her home state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
With 20.8% of the vote, the AfD came in second place behind the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) (30.6%). Merkel's CDU came in third place, with 19% of the vote, the worst result it has ever had in Meck-Pomm, as the state is called for short.
The election in Meck-Pomm was widely seen as a referendum on Merkel's open-door migration policy and her decision to allow more than one million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East to enter Germany in 2015. The migrant influx has resulted in a notable increase in crime in the country. The growing sense of insecurity has been exacerbated by a series of attacks this summer by Muslim migrants in which ten people were killed and dozens more were injured.
The CDU debacle in Meck-Pomm yields two main conclusions: 1) Merkel's hopes of winning — or even running — for a fourth term in general elections in 2017 are now in doubt; and 2) the AfD is a force to be reckoned with in German politics. It can longer be simply dismissed as a "fringe party."
Observers from across the political spectrum seem to agree that the election in Meck-Pomm marks a turning point for Merkel, who has been head of the CDU since 2000 and chancellor since November 2005. Some say her political career may effectively be over if the CDU suffers heavy losses to the AfD in state elections in Berlin on September 18.
"This was a dark day for Merkel," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at the University of Cologne. "Everyone knows she lost this election. Her district in parliament is there, she campaigned there, and refugees are her issue."
The CDU's secretary general, Peter Tauber, agreed: "The strong performance of AfD is bitter for many, for everyone in our party. A sizeable number of people wanted to voice their displeasure and to protest. And we saw that particularly in discussions about refugees."
The leader of the AfD, Frauke Petry, said: "This is a blow for Merkel, not only in Berlin but also in her home state. The voters made a clear statement against Merkel's disastrous immigration policies. This put her in her place."
Local AfD leader Leif-Erik Holm told supporters: "We are writing history. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship. This must be our goal."
Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said:
"People will see this defeat as the start of the 'Kanzlerdämmerung' (twilight of the chancellor). If a lot of CDU members start seeing this defeat as Merkel's fault, and members of parliament start seeing her as a danger for the party and their own jobs next year, the whole situation could escalate out of control. If the AfD defeats the CDU again in Berlin in two weeks, things could get ugly fast."
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Ralf Stegner, the vice president of the SPD, said the CDU was in a "state of panic" over the rise of the AfD and that Merkel has become a liability to her party:
"Merkel has clearly passed her zenith. It is a disaster for her that the CDU has fallen to third place with under 20% in her own state. This is a serious crisis for the CDU and it bears the names of Merkel and Seehofer. Some people now believe that Merkel no longer leads the debate with Seehofer about her 2017 candidacy. Throughout its history, the CDU has been merciless to its chancellors if there was the impression that the party was facing a massive loss of votes."
Stegner was referring to an August 27 report by Der Spiegel which said that Merkel has postponed an announcement about her candidacy due to opposition from the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of her migration policy:
"Angela Merkel will delay until the spring of 2017 her decision whether to run for another term as chancellor of the CDU in the general election next year. The delay was necessary because only then will CSU chief Horst Seehofer decide whether his party will support Merkel again, according to CDU insiders. This is the second time that Merkel has had to postpone the announcement of her plans.
"Actually, her decision should have been announced a long time ago. The original plan was that Merkel would declare her intentions as early as last spring. But then the refugee crisis and the fierce dispute with the CSU got in the way. The Chancellor decided to wait until this fall.
"This time the delay is more problematic for Merkel. In December, the CDU party congress takes place in Essen, where Merkel wants to be elected as party chairman for another two years.
"But she can only be party chairman if she is a candidate in the general election. The party congress should send a signal that the CDU fully supports the Chancellor. This will not work if the party does not know if Merkel wants to continue.
"From Merkel's perspective, the alternative would be more risky: If she announces her candidacy for chancellor without Seehofer's support, it could hurt her politically."
In a September 6 interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, CSU leader Horst Seehofer, said the "disastrous" election outcome in Meck-Pomm was a direct consequence Merkel's migration policy. He added that Merkel had ignored "multiple prompts for a course correction" and that her refusal to budge threatens the future of the CDU. "Confidence in the government is dwindling rapidly," he warned. "People do not understand how policy is made in Germany."
CSU Secretary General Andreas Scheuer reiterated the call for Merkel to change course: "We need a cap on refugees, faster deportations and better integration."
Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder agreed: "The result must be a wake-up call for the CDU. The mood of the people can no longer be ignored. A change of course is needed in Berlin."
Merkel remains defiant. A day after the debacle in Meck-Pomm, Merkel rejected any course correction on migration policy:
"I am very unsatisfied with the outcome of the election. Obviously it has something to do with the refugee question. I think the decisions that were made were correct."
She went on to blame German voters for failing to appreciate her government's "problem-solving abilities" (Lösungskompetenz).
On September 7, in a fiery address to the German parliament, Merkel said the AfD's anti-immigration stance posed a threat to Germany. "All of us should realize the AfD is a challenge not only for the Christian Democrats... they are a challenge for everyone in this house." She may also have indicated that she intends to seek another term as chancellor when she said: "There is still a lot of work to be done."
Alternative for Germany (AfD)
In more ways than one, Angela Merkel is directly responsible for the rise of the AfD. In her more than ten years as chancellor, she has moved the CDU to the left on so many key issues that the party is no longer conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.
Under Merkel, the CDU's policies on nuclear energy have become essentially identical to those of the Green Party. Merkel has also adopted many of the social policies of the SPD. In terms the open-door migration policy, the CDU's position is virtually indistinguishable from both the SPD and the Greens. This has created an opening for the AfD.
Launched in 2013, the AfD is now present in nine of Germany's 16 state parliaments. It is poised to enter the federal parliament for the first time in 2017. According to an Insa poll cited by Bild on September 5, if the national election were held today, the AfD would win 15% of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Germany.
The Insa poll also found that in the Meck-Pomm election, the AfD siphoned off more than 55,000 votes from other parties. More than 22,000 CDU voters cast their ballots for the AfD; 15,000 SPD voters voted for the AfD; and more than 22,000 voters affiliated with other parties gave their votes to the AfD.
The party was originally founded to protest the German government's handling of the eurozone crisis. Its founding manifesto stated:
"The Federal Republic of Germany is facing the most serious crisis in its history. The euro currency area has proved to be unworkable. Southern European countries are sliding into poverty under the competitive pressure of the euro. Entire states are on the verge of default.
"Hundreds of billions of euros have already been pledged by the federal government. An end to this policy is not in sight. This is excessive and irresponsible. We, our children and our grandchildren will have to pay for this with taxes, stagnation and inflation. At the same time, this is eroding our democracy. In this situation, the CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP and the Greens know only one answer: Keep it up!"
In April 2013, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung revealed that CDU insiders viewed the rise of the AfD as "the end of Merkel's chancellorship." A strategy was set in place to conduct opposition research and paint the AfD as a "national conservative" party driven by proponents of "market radicalism."
The AfD — similar in many ways to the upstart Tea Party movement in the United States — has suffered self-inflicted wounds as a result of political infighting and internal power struggles. Establishment politicians and the mainstream media have repeatedly seized on outrageous comments made by some within the party to portray it as a "far right" party that poses a threat to German values.
In an interview with the Guardian, Frauke Petry, the AfD leader, said the party has sometimes felt forced to use outspoken language to get its message across. She said:
"Well, sometimes, I don't deny, we think we have to use provocative arguments in order to be heard. Because we tried very hard at the beginning of 2013 to be heard with lots of very sensible thinking and arguments, and we simply couldn't get through to anyone. So what do you do? You put forward a provocative argument, and sometimes you are given the chance to explain what you meant. I know it's a difficult choice to make but sometimes, for us, it feels like the only way."
Petry also said the AfD is not opposed to "real refugees," but it is against the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants who are posing as refugees. "There is enough space for refugees in Germany, but the problem is that we don't distinguish anymore between migrants and asylum seekers," she said.
A comprehensive party manifesto published in May 2016 called for: limited government; term limits; campaign finance reform; reducing the power of political parties; direct elections for chancellor; devolving power to federal states; a referendum on the euro; reforming the United Nations; a strong military based on the NATO alliance; reintroducing conscription; stronger police enforcement; justice reform; gun rights; protecting German borders; labor market reform; eliminating burdensome bureaucracy; promoting the traditional family; encouraging Germans to have more children rather than resorting to mass migration to fix its demographic problems; protecting the rights of the unborn; promoting German culture rather than multiculturalism; promoting the German language as the basis for German identity and for integration; banning the foreign financing of mosques; eliminating government subsidies for radio and television; and so on. Many of the AfD's positions were once held, but later abandoned, by the CDU.
Meanwhile, a September 1 poll for ARD television showed Merkel's popularity rating has plunged to 45%, a five-year low, and down from a high of 67% one year ago. More than half (51%) of those surveyed said it would "not be good" if Merkel ran for another term in 2017. If national elections were held today, the CDU would win just 33%, down from 42% one year ago.
The poll showed one factor in Merkel's favor: the lack of a political rival strong enough to challenge her.
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.