Anti-Merkel sentiment grows in east Germany before election
‘Disappointed love’ and immigration fears are causing unrest in chancellor’s heartland
Protesters and hecklers chant “Merkel must go” at the edge of an election campaign stop in Finsterwalde. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s election rallies in her native eastern Germany used to be cheery affairs, with local crowds welcoming one of their own who had beaten the west Germans at their own game.
That pride persists but, two weeks ahead of the federal election, it is increasingly drowned out at rallies by hundreds of furious protesters blowing whistles and chanting “Merkel must go”.
“She’s not a chancellor in our eyes; she’s a criminal,” said Horst, a 56-year-old on the sidelines of a recent Merkel rally in the eastern city of Bitterfeld.
Like many protesters, he holds a sign from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Opinion polls put the far-right party on double-digit support, and some forecast that the party will be the third-largest when it enters the Bundestag for the first time.
Its greatest vote winner: deep-seated concerns over the consequences of the 2015-16 refugee crisis that saw more than a million people granted asylum in Germany.
Last month the European Court of Justice ruled that Dr Merkel, at the height of the crisis, was entitled to set aside EU immigration regulations for the crisis period.
But the AfD insists the German leader acted illegally by “opening” Germany’s already open borders and risking lives, such as the 12 dead in the Islamist attack on a Berlin Christmas market last year. At Merkel rallies around eastern Germany, it is striking how many protesters repeat – almost verbatim – the talking points of Germany’s newest political party.
Worst chancellor ever
“She is the worst chancellor ever, she’s broken her oath of office many times,” said Jayden (25) in Bitterfeld, referring to the chancellor’s oath to protect the German people from harm.
Another protester, Helmut (57) repeats a line from another AfD leader: “Merkel should be put in a straitjacket and led out of the chancellery.”
At a recent press conference, the German leader was asked how she felt having to shout to be heard at eastern German rallies.
“One has to live with it. That’s democracy,” she said, acknowledging the AfD was “particularly dominant” in the east. “But I think it is important to face them. Thank God there are still many who think differently, and I’m very happy for that.”
Among her Christian Democratic Union officials, concerns are rising over the true level of support for the AfD, not revealed in opinion polls. They know that level of support could rise further if Germany is the target of another Islamist attack before polling day.
Although the anti-Merkel protests are nationwide, why is the chancellor particularly contested among her own people?
“It’s disappointed love, and we all know how that can lead to the worst emotions,” said Prof Werner Patzelt, political scientist of the Technical University, Dresden.
He has studied recent eastern German protest waves, including the AfD and the xenophobic Pegida movement. He sees a fury that the chancellor has, in eastern eyes, joined a distant, hated elite in Berlin. Compounding their anger, he says, is annoyance that Dr Merkel insists her liberal refugee policy in 2015 was correct while, with an eye on the rising AfD vote, shifting to a more restrictive refugee policy now.
“Merkel was popular in the east because she was considered rational and considered,” he said. “And her refugee policy is viewed by many here as anything but rational and considered.”
A final cause of fury, whether in Finsterwalde or Brandenburg: the feeling that newly arrived refugees are being treated better in welfare terms than struggling eastern Germans.
The AfD continues to polarise and radicalise, particularly campaign co-leader Alice Weidel. On Sunday, a German newspaper published an email, allegedly written by her in 2013, suggesting mass migration to Germany was part of a “systematic destruction” of German society by political “pigs who are nothing more than marionettes of the victorious second World War allies”.
Dr Weidel has disputed writing the email but, even if she did, online reaction suggests it will not dampen supporters’ enthusiasm for a party promising to provide a more robust opposition to Merkel policies in the Bundestag. “Things are just nodded through in Berlin,” said Uwe, a 48-year-old anti-Merkel protester in Brandenburg. “People sense that and [are] more intelligent than many realise.”