German elections bad for Angela Merkel but could have been worse

Super Sunday verdict loaded with paradox for chancellor and political establishment

Super Sunday was bad for German chancellor Angela Merkel, but could have been worse. Christian Democratic Union leader  attends a news conference at  party headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Super Sunday was bad for German chancellor Angela Merkel, but could have been worse. Christian Democratic Union leader attends a news conference at party headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

 

Super Sunday was bad for Angela Merkel, but could have been worse. If anything, the verdict of one in five Germans, called to weekend polls in three federal states, was loaded with paradox for the German leader and the political establishment.

The elections took place in just three states - Saxony-Anhalt in the east; Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate in the west - but reflect a wider picture of a bitterly divided and uncertain country, with a growing drift right and away from the political centre.

The wins for the Alternative für Deutschland, brings a sixth political party into Germany’s political landscape and complicates the coalition arithmetic for all - not just Dr Merkel’s CDU - making three-party alliances the new normal.

But, in the first paradox, the anti-immigrant AfD wins weakened Dr Merkel on one front but strengthened her on another.

As bleary-eyed CDU regional leaders arrived in Berlin, the growing consensus was that voters had not delivered a stinging rejection of Dr Merkel’s open-door migration policy, nor did they embrace it in a way beneficial to the German leader or her party.

Voters punished two nervous CDU state leaders who broke with Dr Merkel’s migration policy to challenge the AfD. But the one CDU leader who remained loyal to Dr Merkel lost support, too.

The two biggest election winners among established parties were Green and Social Democrat (SPD) state leaders who backed Angela Merkel on migration. That is good news for the German leader as she works to put Sunday’s results behind her and faces into new talks this week on an EU/Turkey refugee deal.

“In the CDU a discussion will begin now whether it is worthwhile agitating against Merkel on migration because they know they will lose,” said Dr Gero Neugebauer. With few credible alternatives to Dr Merkel as CDU leader, he suggested Sunday’s results “offers some security for Merkel, but she still has to pull back supporters from the AfD.”

From a standing start in 2013, the AfD now sits in half of Germany’s state elections. Its arrival on Sunday in two western state parliaments - Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate - brings the party one step closer to being a national political force. It has shattered the CDU’s monopoly on the political right just as the SPD lost its absolute hold on left-wing politics with the rise of the Greens in the 1980s and the Left Party a decade ago.

But the real test for new parties in Germany is not to be elected to a state parliament, but to be re-elected and to build on that success in federal elections. And when the post-election euphoria evaporates, the AfD is still some way from being homogenous party with a long-term prognosis.

Instead the party is a loose collection of strong-willed camps, from arch-conservatives, economic liberals and anti-globalisation nostalgics to an extreme nationalist camp and a gang of professional contrarians. AfD members meet next month to agree on a much-delayed party programme, but vast differences remain over key economic and social policies.

“The battle to unify the AfD profile is only beginning,” said Dr Neugebauer. “There are people in the party ready to listen to arguments and facts, but most just make pronouncements.”

As AfD leaders work to build a coherent whole from eight state parliamentary parties, they will face competition from the revived Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Following a humiliating 2013 exit from the Bundestag, the liberal FDP hopes its wins in two western states have ended its spell in the political wilderness. Its new leader Christian Lindner is pitching is party as a force of “freedom, openness, common sense and responsibility” -- everything he argues the AfD is not.

If Super Sunday was a mixed bag for Angela Merkel it was downright messy for her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD). It finished first in Rhineland-Palatinate, but that was thanks to a strong local leader, Malu Dreier, than anything else. Disastrous losses of 10 points elsewhere have hardened attitudes to leader Sigmar Gabriel.

He is anxious to sharpen the party’s blurry profile with solidarity pact to win back lower-income Germans who feel marginalised by the rush to aid migrants. But Berlin officials believe the party urgently needs a unique selling point if it hopes to win back the 10 million voters who have abandoned Social Democracy since 1998.

“They need to leave migration policy to Merkel but make integration policy theirs, activating their broad civil society network across the country,” suggested political scientist Gero Neugebauer.

Aside from the AfD, Sunday’s other disruption is the rise of the Green Party in Baden-Württemberg. Scoring the highest ever Green state result with 30.3 per cent, state premier Winfried Kretschmann is now the man to watch.

Unable to govern alone with the weakened SPD, Mr Kretschmann’s search for a coalition partner could turn to traditional arch rivals CDU. A previously unthinkable alliance would one step closer the prospect of a previously unthinkable CDU-Green alliance in Berlin.

That is the final paradox of Super Sunday: a new “Black-Green” alliance in Stuttgart could open a new coalition option for Chancellor Angela Merkel should she return for a fourth term in 2017.

For now, Dr Merkel demonstratively shrugged off Super Sunday on Monday, saying through her spokesman she would “continue pursuing the refugee political path to date with full strength”.

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