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Mar 12, 2016 | 14:00 GMT

7 mins read

Changing Tides in German Politics

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Guido Wolf (L), top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for the state elections in the southwestern German federal state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, attend an election campaign event in Nuertingen, southwestern Germany, on March 8, 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel's party risks a drubbing at key state elections on March 13, 2016 as voters punish the German leader for her liberal refugee policy, while the right-wing populist AfD eyes major gains as it scoops up the
(THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 13, Germany will hold regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg, testing not only the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling center-right party and her center-left allies, but also the performance of the emerging populist right. Against the backdrop of the European immigration crisis, the regional votes will kick off the race for Germany's 2017 general elections.

Tides are changing in German politics. The migration crisis has weakened support for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its coalition partner, the progressive Social Democratic Party (SPD). Many Germans think the chancellor made a mistake in September 2015 when she announced that all asylum seekers would be welcomed in Germany. But Merkel's popularity is slowly recovering since her government changed its position. The German parliament has passed laws that limit migrants' access to social benefits, delay family reunifications and accelerate deportations. Merkel herself has become more active, persuading Greece and Turkey to accept a NATO mission in the Aegean Sea and reaching a provisional deal with Ankara to reduce the influx of asylum seekers into Europe. Whether these measures will be viable is still in doubt, but they are meant to show voters that Berlin is working hard to solve the problem.

Additionally, cold weather and a proliferation of fences and refugee quotas in countries along the Balkan migration route have decreased the number of asylum seekers who have reached Germany since the start of 2016. Although Merkel criticizes enhanced border controls and quotas on the route between Greece and Austria, these measures have alleviated migratory pressure on Germany, giving Berlin a political respite.

However, many Germans still feel threatened by the spike in the number of asylum seekers. Their sentiments have given rise to Alternative for Germany (AfD), a nationalist party that originally formed around opposition to the eurozone but quickly evolved into an anti-immigration party. The refugee crisis has been kind to AfD, which saw its national popularity grow from about 4 percent in August 2015 to roughly 12 percent in March 2016. In some parts of eastern Germany, where the economy tends to be weaker than in western regions, AfD's popularity is nearing 20 percent. This has made the CDU nervous because it is unaccustomed to having electoral competition on its right.

Saxony-Anhalt

Of Germany's eastern regions, only Saxony-Anhalt, currently ruled by a CDU and SPD coalition, will hold elections on March 13. Opinion polls show that across the political spectrum, all of Germany's traditional parties are losing popularity there, while AfD is on the rise. Surveys suggest that AfD could get as much as 19 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt. And because this is the only region of the three holding elections where Merkel's party holds power, a loss in Saxony-Anhalt would be a big defeat for the CDU. Even so, the CDU is expected to win the election, albeit with fewer votes than in the last regional election in 2011.

Rhineland-Palatinate

In Rhineland-Palatinate, a region in western Germany, a center-left coalition of SPD and the Greens currently rules. Both parties are expected to lose support there, while support for the CDU should stay close to where it was in 2011. The CDU's candidate in the region is Julia Kloeckner, an up-and-coming politician viewed by some as a potential future candidate for the chancellery. Kloeckner has criticized Merkel's refugee policy and supports demands by Bavarian conservatives to introduce refugee quotas, which Merkel opposes. If Kloeckner performs well in Rhineland-Palatinate, the German government's most conservative members will consider their calls for a tougher stance on migrants affirmed.

AfD's performance in Rhineland-Palatinate will not be as notable as in Saxony-Anhalt, but the party is still expected to get about 9 percent of the vote. This would demonstrate growing popularity beyond the party's electoral stronghold in the east, an important achievement for AfD.

Baden-Wurttemberg

Finally, there is Baden-Wurttemberg, a wealthy region also located in the west. Once steadfastly conservative, Baden-Wurttemberg has been governed by a coalition of the Greens and SPD since 2011. The situation there is similar to that in Rhineland-Palatinate: AfD is polling well — around 11 percent — and most of the traditional parties are expected to lose popular support.

For conservatives especially, this could be a painful election. Polls show that support for the CDU in Baden-Wurttemberg has fallen from around 41 percent to 27 percent since the migration crisis began. Guido Wolf, the region's conservative candidate, has tried to distance himself from Merkel — to little avail — by demanding a tougher policy on migration.

What to Watch on March 13

Here's what Stratfor will be watching during the March 13 elections:

The performance of the Christian Democratic Union. Of the areas holding elections, Merkel's party holds power only in Saxony-Anhalt, so losing control of the region would be a serious blow for conservatives, worse than a loss in either of the other two regions. A weak performance by the CDU and a strong performance by AfD will probably reignite claims within Merkel's party that the conservatives are losing ground to the populists.

The performance of Alternative for Germany. The party is expected to fare particularly well in Saxony-Anhalt, but good performances in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg would show that it is also gaining momentum in the west. Other parties will be unwilling to form alliances with AfD, so the party will not enter any regional governments. Nonetheless, strong results in the election would consolidate its role as an opposition party.

The performance of the Social Democratic Party. In the throes of an identity crisis, the German center-left is struggling to differentiate itself from its coalition partners to the right. In the event that both parties perform poorly, low numbers for the SPD would console its traditional rival, the CDU.

The Future of the Chancellery

At this point, Merkel's position is not at stake. The chancellor has regained political initiative, and although most of her policies on migration are untested, voters no longer see her as inactive on the issue. Besides, the German economy is still growing, and unemployment remains low. The migration crisis has yet to substantially affect people's daily lives, despite concerns over its economic implications. The conservatives have focused their campaigns on economic policy — not refugees — in recent weeks to try to capitalize on this fact.

Moreover, Germany's main political parties do not have candidates ready to replace Merkel. The CDU's only viable option is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, but it is unclear whether the veteran politician is willing to take over as chancellor. Meanwhile, the SPD is not polling well and lacks a strong leader, making it reluctant to hold elections in the short term. Consequently, chances are slim that parties in parliament will trigger a no-confidence vote against Merkel.

However, if mainstream parties underperform in the regional elections, their representation in the Bundesrat, a legislative body composed of representatives from Germany's 16 regions, will diminish. Although it holds less legislative sway than Germany's main parliamentary body, fewer mainstream seats in the Bundesrat would still complicate decision-making for Berlin.

But more importantly, the electoral rise of the populist right could transcend the regional elections. Though AfD is a long way from accessing power, it does not have to win an election to gain influence. As the political realities in France and the United Kingdom illustrate, mainstream parties tend to adopt elements of their nationalist rivals' agendas when they feel threatened by them.

AfD is a young party and faces constant internal crises. Last year, it made the strategic decision to abandon financial issues in favor of strong anti-immigration rhetoric. The party will have a hard time changing its profile again if migration stops being the primary concern among voters. Therefore, there is no guarantee that AfD will sustain its popularity through the 2017 general elections. But its rise alone indicates that German voters are increasingly ready to support a protest party. Regardless of what happens with AfD, the apparent rise of Euroskepticism in Germany could deepen political fragmentation in the European Union. The greater the nationalists' perceived threat, the more likely moderates will be to emulate their polarizing agenda. And a more divisive German government would mean a less coherent position on migration, less credibility to manage that issue at the EU level, and more disagreement over Berlin's role in the EU's political and economic crises.

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