Angela Merkel’s political future hanging in the balance
Even the chancellor is shifting to the right as her third term comes to a close
German chancellor Angela Merkel: Most Germans say she is their best bet to lead them into an uncertain future. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/Reuters
Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged her fellow Germans to face into the new year with confidence despite the “bitter and offensive” attacks carried out in 2016 by Islamists posing as asylum seekers.
The German leader knows that 2017 will be a fateful year – for Europe, for Germany and for herself – and insisted in her New Year’s address that western European liberal democracy is stronger than those trying to undermine it.
“To the terrorists, we say: you are murderers full of hate but we – not you – decide how we want to live: free, empathetic and open,” she said.
She acknowledged that, among almost 900,000 people who had entered Germany from crisis countries in 2015, were people who were now “mocking . . . our readiness to help . . . and mocking those who really need and have earned our protection”.
The decisive question for 2017, a question on which her political future hangs, is whether German voters share her analysis – that Islamists are testing and mocking their generosity – or if, fearful and uncertain, German voters turn on Merkel for giving Islamist extremists an opening to exploit.
As they mark 500 years since Martin Luther triggered the Reformation, a new schism runs through Germany. One camp believes, as Merkel does, that the shocking images of Aleppo are a reminder of why it was right to open its borders in 2015.
But last year’s series of attacks in Bavaria and Berlin, many linked to so-called Islamic State, also known as Isis, has shaken this camp and put it on the defensive. The same attacks have energised another camp, confirming their fears that Germany’s open-door policy, motivated by do-gooder naivety, has invited in Islamist terror.
But Germany has a third camp ahead of three state elections and September’s federal election, a camp comprising one quarter of undecided voters who can still go either way.
In her New Year’s address, Merkel made a play for this third group conceding that 2016 had called into question many achievements previously taken for granted: open and liberal societies, parliamentary democracy and European integration. On the first, she insisted, “We are stronger together, our state is stronger” than the rising threat.
Looking to Brexit and rising nationalism across Europe, meanwhile, she urged Germans to “never be fooled into thinking a happy future could ever lie in national unilateralism”.
But she knows that, from the Netherlands and France, a nationalist, protectionist, populist siren song will grow louder in the coming year.
Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is confident that pinning the migration crisis – and future Islamist attacks – on Merkel will swing three further state election wins ahead of September’s federal poll and its Bundestag entry ticket.
Sensing the rising AfD threat, Merkel’s CSU allies in Bavaria, critical of the migration policy, will use their traditional New Year gathering this week to demand further security controls and upward migration limits. If not, they have threatened to end their election alliance with Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and run an independent campaign.
From expedited deportations to backing a burka ban, Merkel had already begun a political pivot to the right ahead of Berlin’s Christmas market attack that killed 12 last month.
Further post-attack security promises saw the CDU jump two points in polls to 38 per cent, according to a Forsa agency poll for Stern magazine. She may have to shift further, however, with support for CSU-style migration limits – until now resisted by Merkel – rising four points to 67 per cent.
Things began to unravel for Merkel exactly a year ago after hundreds of sex attacks on women celebrating New Year’s Eve in Cologne, with many non-nationals and asylum seekers among the perpetrators. A year on, more than 1,500 Cologne police were in place amid heightened controls that included a ban on fireworks and banks of new security cameras.
In one controversial move, city police identified hundreds of “Nafris” – young men “evidently” from North Africa – and removed them from trains to Cologne or stopped them at the central station for ID checks.
Police said Cologne remained peaceful with four cases reported of unwanted groping. At the Brandenburg Gate, Germany’s largest New Year’s Eve party, two sexual assault cases were reported amid heightened security measures.
As her third term comes to a close these are the best and worst of times for Angela Merkel. The worst: a tricky Trump-Putin-Erdogan triumvirate and two-thirds of Germans now more worried by further terrorist attacks than anything else.
The best of times: a record number of Germans at work, and an economy forecast to grow by almost 2 per cent.
She may have lost her teflon coating in 2016 but a TNS/Emnid poll in recent days suggests a majority of Germans – 56 per cent – still believe Merkel is their best bet to lead them into an uncertain future.