Anti-immigration party rattles Merkel in Berlin ballot

Pressure on German chancellor to halt slippage as far-right AfD wins 10th state election

German voters delivered another slap in the face to Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday, handing her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) its worst-ever result in Berlin's city-state election.

With the migration crisis dominating German politics, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enjoyed its 10th consecutive state election win, entering the Berlin city-state parliament with 13 per cent support, according to exit polls.

The result means the outgoing Social Democratic Party (SPD) mayor Michael Müller is likely to form a three-way centre-left coalition with Green and Linke (left) parties.

The Berlin poll, Germany’s last state election for 2016, saw a high turnout of 66 per cent, leading to an hour-long wait at some polling stations. After a campaign dominated by social issues, in particular a squeeze on housing and public services, the German capital’s struggle with the migration crisis was the dominant theme.


“We managed it, we have a mandate to form a new government,” said Mr Müller.

Big two lose out

In truth it was a bad evening for Germany’s two big parties, with SPD and CDU losing some 5 per cent support each to finish with 23 and 18 per cent, according to exit polls.

SPD federal leader Sigmar Gabriel said the most important signal was that the German capital would remain a city of social inclusion and that the "vast majority were not receptive to far-right rallying cries".

But jubilant AfD leaders, including the party’s top candidate for Berlin Georg Pazderski, said they were confident they had found a winning election formula – tapping into public concern over migration and the consequences for German domestic security.

“The trend is clear: the CDU and SPD are losing and falling to historic levels, while we are winning,” said Dr Beatrix von Storch, AfD head in Berlin.

The other big winner in the capital was the Linke Party, gaining almost 5 percentage points to about 16 per cent, finishing neck and neck with the Greens.

With 3.6 million citizens and 2.5 million voters, the Berlin capital carries little political weight in the grander scheme of German federal politics.

But Sunday’s result had symbolic value with the likely ejection of the CDU from power as the far-right AfD entered yet another state parliament with double-digit support.

Second, Berlin voters may have triggered a political premiere in Germany if the AfD-related election arithmetic forces outgoing SPD mayor Müller to seek a three-way alliance with the Greens and Linke.

The Berlin poll ends this year’s regional polls – and a bad run for Dr Merkel’s CDU.

Two weeks ago it finished third behind the AfD in her eastern political homeland. Worryingly for her: the largest bloc of defecting CDU voters – roughly 32,000 – departed to the far-right AfD.

“The AfD is not a party with a programme but one that pushes protest, and all parties are suffering as a result,” said Prof Monika Grütters, a CDU politician in Berlin and federal culture minister in Dr Merkel’s government.

At Monday morning postmortem sessions, the Berlin result will step up pressure on Dr Merkel to win back public confidence over her migration strategy.

Narrow window

But the election calendar for Germany’s 16 federal states means she has only a short window of opportunity in which to do so. Three further state elections loom in 2017, including a crucial poll in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

That poll is due in May, four months before federal elections, but NRW’s population of 18 million means it is unlikely much political business will be done from then on in the last month’s of Dr Merkel’s third term.

While the chancellor has, until recently, been a highly popular federal leader, her party has been squeezed in the last three years since the foundation of the AfD.

The CDU and its Bavarian CSU allies have finished first in just half of Germany’s last cycle of 16 federal state polls. If the CDU is ejected as junior grand coalition partner in the Berlin city-state government, Dr Merkel’s alliance holds power in just six of 16 federal states.

On paper, the Berlin result changes nothing for Dr Merkel's own grand coalition in the Bundestag. But it tips the law-making balance of power even further away from the German chancellor and her CDU in the upper house, the Bundesrat, where the federal states meet.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin