BERLIN — The U.S. isn’t the only major Western democracy where the fallout from the global war on terrorism is being felt at the ballot box.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-dominant Christian Democrats are bracing for another hit in local elections Sunday.
The chancellor has come under even more pressure over her open-door refugee policy as the campaign for Germany’s federal elections next year begins to take shape. It is a remarkable comedown from barely a year ago when Ms. Merkel’s popularity seemed unassailable.
As elsewhere in Germany, the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is siphoning voters in Germany’s cosmopolitan capital away from established political parties, thanks to their explicit hard-line stance on immigration. Two weeks ago, the CDU suffered a historic defeat in Ms. Merkel’s home district of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, coming in third after the AfD and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
If the AfD defeats the CDU on Sunday, it will undermine another coalition between the CDU and SPD, which share power at the federal level in Berlin’s state legislature, and could affect how political parties across the ideological spectrum approach next year’s federal elections, analysts said.
“The ruling parties on the national level will have to think about alternatives to the Grand Coalition,” said Florian Hartleb, a political analyst based in Berlin. “That will be the main message they will take away from this election. The SPD could come under pressure to think about a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party at the national level.
A loss in Berlin could also increase tensions between the CDU and its Bavarian-based sister party, the Christian Socialists (CSU), over Ms. Merkel’s liberal refugee policies, said Mr. Hartleb.
The CSU has been in revolt against the CDU since last year when the chancellor welcomed more than 1 million refugees to Germany from Syria and other world trouble spots. At the same time, many other EU countries were closing their borders in the face of an unprecedented crush of refugees.
“This will be another opportunity for the CSU to attack Merkel, especially in terms of her refugee policies,” said Mr. Hartleb. “It makes it more unlikely that the CDU and CSU can establish a common platform for next year’s elections.”
While the AfD has campaigned its way into numerous state parliaments in Germany by taking the lead in opposing Ms. Merkel’s migration policies, the election results Sept. 4 in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were shocking to many.
It was the first time in postwar German history that the CDU lost to a party on the right, much less to one barely 3 years old that began with protest of Germany’s adoption of the euro.
Frauke Petry, the AfD’s national chairwoman, told German media after the Mecklenburg elections that Ms. Merkel’s “catastrophic migration policies” overshadowed other political issues in the state. At a press conference the day after that election, Ms. Merkel conceded as much.
Staying the course
As chancellor and leader of the CDU, Ms. Merkel said she herself and her open-door policies were responsible for the party’s losses in Mecklenburg, although she defended her decision.
“Those results, of course, have something to do with refugee policies,” said Ms. Merkel. “But I still believe that the decisions made then were correct.”
In left-leaning Berlin, the AfD will have a tougher time. The city-state of Berlin is governed by a partnership between the Social Democrats and the CDU, but both parties are forecast to lose voters this weekend to the upstart AfD, which is set to enter Berlin’s state parliament for the first time. That would give the anti-immigrant party seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.
A late wild card in the vote were reports featured prominently in German newspapers of a clash Wednesday night in the state of Saxony between 20 refugees and what police said were some 80 right-wing extremists. The two parties, which fought a night earlier, reportedly hurled bottles at each other.
Police officers who tried to separate the feuding groups found themselves targeted by rioters as well.
An embarrassing result in the Berlin vote Sunday would give Mr. Merkel’s most outspoken critics more momentum as Germany’s 2017 federal elections draw closer, analysts said.
“It’s this whole image of [the AfD] on an upward trend, so this can have a bandwagon effect even at the federal level,” said Heiko Giebler, a research associate at the Berlin Social Science Center. “It sends a signal to voters that the AfD is stronger than ever before and that it’s a viable choice for the national parliament.”
It also sends a signal to other populist leaders in Europe that Germany is fertile ground for a radical right-wing movement.
“These elections provide fodder for other radical parties in Europe to say they have a partner in Germany striving for the same goals,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin.
Indeed, France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, foresees a string of right-wing political successes across the Continent. She tweeted shortly after the Sept. 4 election, “What was impossible yesterday has become possible now.”
Even Republican presidential nominee Trump has weighed in, repeatedly, on what he sees as the folly of Ms. Merkel’s liberal refugee policies.
He said the flood of foreigners produced a sharp increase in the German crime rate, which the country’s officials denied. In a speech last month, Mr. Trump was bitingly critical of Ms. Merkel’s immigration stance and accused Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of wanting to follow the chancellor’s lead.
“Hillary Clinton wants to be America’s Angela Merkel, and you know what a disaster this massive immigration has been to Germany and the people of Germany,” Mr. Trump said. “Crime has risen to levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see. It is a catastrophe.”
Haunted by its Nazi legacy, Germany was the exception in Europe because it never developed a strong right-wing populist party as happened in Austria or the Netherlands, said Mr. Giebler. “But with the rise of the AfD, that picture changes and it puts established parties under pressure because they are all losing voters to the AfD.”
Still, Ms. Merkel’s policies are unlikely to change much going forward, Mr. Giebler said.
Instead, Ms. Merkel said after Sept. 4 elections that a priority for all politicians is winning back voters’ trust while avoiding the refugee issue for political gain.
Despite a four-year low in popularity for the CDU — a survey published Sept. 14 showed that only 32 percent of Germans support the party — analysts say an alternative to Ms. Merkel is nowhere in sight.
“It’s astonishing — there is still no debate about who can replace Merkel,” said Mr. Hartleb. “There are many people in Germany who say they aren’t happy with Merkel anymore, but there is no alternative. It’s quite a paradox.”