Merkel is no longer untouchable. Among its co-religionists there is one who openly doubts that it will be the best candidate to the chancellery among the conservatives for the generals of autumn 2017. The two consecutive electoral defeats of his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in two regional elections have highlighted the erosion of what was, for more than a decade, the undisputed leader of his party, Germany and the European Union. His management of the refugee crisis – his most controversial and perhaps most personal decision – is taking a huge political toll on him: a divided party, a hole in the ballot box and the rise of the ultra-right. The end of the Merkel Age begins?
It was on the night of 4-5 September last year that the chancellor agreed, in a long telephone conversation with her Austrian counterpart, Werner Faymann, to keep the borders open and to allow the tens of thousands of blocked refugees in Hungary to travel to Germany. The wave of asylum seekers, mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, surpassed one million people in 2015.
The chancellor was safe for weeks, discussing with her advisors the economic, financial and social consequences of her decision. But she could never have imagined that the political fallout was the greatest.
Barely twelve months after that decision, the political landscape has changed completely. The elections in Mecklenburg-Antoomerania and Berlin testify to this. In both cases the CDU has obtained its worst historical record. In the first, a depressed and rural Land of former East Germany, the Conservatives were relegated to third place, behind the emerging German Alternative (AfD), a xenophobic and nationalist formation that came second. In the city-states, an urban and multicultural nucleus, they maintained second place despite losing almost six percentage points. However, they have become irrelevant to the formation of government and will pass to the opposition after ruling with the Social Democrats in the last legislature.
In both elections the key issue, together with local issues, has been the refugee crisis. It has been evident in campaign speeches and propaganda posters. Even Merkel has openly acknowledged it this week. In addition to the “regional reasons” there is another “cause” for the “poor results” in Mecklenburg-Anto-Pomerania and Berlin: that “the direction and objective of asylum policy has not been adequately explained”. That is, that their determination is the refugee crisis has taken its toll on them at the polls. For this reason, she assumed her “share of responsibility” as CDU president and German chancellor in the two electoral misfortunes.
In the last twelve months, at the same time, AfD, a party that was born as an elitist Eurosceptic force in 2013, has continued to swell in the last 12 months and has since mutated into a party that proposes shooting at the border to prevent refugees from entering the country and banning mosques. Its voters are mainly former abstentionist disenchanted voters, as well as CDU ex-voters who believe that Merkel’s party has lost its essence and veered towards the centre until it becomes unrecognizable. Frauke Petry, leader of AfD, has even pointed out that the CDU now occupies the former SPD’s place in the ideological spectrum.