The Refugee Crisis Redefines German Politics

5 MINS READMar 14, 2016 | 14:46 GMT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a press conference at CDU headquarters in Berlin on March 14.

In Germany's March 13 regional elections, voters revealed their disenchantment with mainstream parties. The elections, held in three of the country's 16 regions, resulted in a record performance by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and waning support for most of the traditional political forces. Since taking over the government more than a decade ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not faced a bigger challenge than the refugee crisis. Within six months of its start, the crisis considerably strengthened the anti-immigration opposition, divided the ruling coalition and weakened Berlin's role in the European Union.

The election results suggest that some German voters are fed up with their leaders. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won in only one of the regions (Saxony-Anhalt) but with fewer votes than in the last round of elections held four years ago. The CDU's campaign was marked by contradiction and internal conflict as some of its candidates criticized Merkel's refugee policy. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also won in one region (Rhineland-Palatinate) but was relegated to fourth place in the other two. Finally, the Greens managed to win a region (Baden-Wurttemberg) but saw negligible results in Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Conversely, AfD performed well in all three regions. The party traditionally has been strongest in eastern Germany, where unemployment rates are higher and nationalist parties tend to be relatively popular. The March 13 elections confirmed this trend as AfD received 24.2 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, only 5 points fewer than the CDU. But AfD also saw record performances in Baden-Wurttemberg, with 15.1 percent of the vote, and in Rhineland-Palatinate, with 12.6 percent. The party's success there is an important development because it shows AfD has managed to expand its presence beyond its traditional strongholds in the east.

AfD managed to attract voters who were disappointed with the traditional parties, most notably the CDU. But AfD also managed to mobilize voters who had not participated in previous elections. In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, more than 100,000 of the votes for AfD came from people who had not voted in 2011. Opinion surveys show that many voters see AfD as a protest party, which means that support for it is not necessarily support for its ideas but a desire to punish the traditional parties. In essence, it shows that a sizable segment of the German population feels unrepresented by the mainstream parties.

In the short term, the regional results will cause Merkel's leadership to be questioned by her own party. Members of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, will try to stop the hemorrhage of votes to the AfD by adopting elements of the nationalists' agenda. Still, Merkel's position is in no immediate danger because none of the large parties in parliament have a candidate strong enough to replace her or a desire to hold early elections. However, her leadership will be compromised if her own party starts planning to replace her as its candidate for the general elections in late 2017.

In the long term, the AfD's ascent shows that there is room for protest parties to grow in Germany. Until now, the country had not seen the rise of anti-system parties as much of the rest of the Continent had, mostly because the German economy was strong throughout the European crisis. But the refugee crisis opened the door for AfD to become more popular and proved that Germans are also underwhelmed by their leaders.

Most anti-establishment parties in Europe have so far failed to enter national governments, but they have still been influential in shaping the politics of their countries. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government's decision to hold a referendum on EU membership was partially a response to the rise of the anti-immigration UKIP party. In Germany, it is not EU membership driving discontent, but refugees. The European Union and Turkey are currently negotiating a plan to manage the flow of refugees, but the talks are far from reaching a resolution, and the current plan to limit the arrival of migrants in Europe has yet to prove effective. Until a solution is found, the AfD will likely remain popular.

But even if migration ceases to be a primary concern for German voters, other issues, from the eurozone crisis to measures by the European Central Bank to revive the economy, could reduce support for mainstream parties and benefit anti-system groups. In fact, AfD was originally formed, with modest success, to oppose the currency union and bailouts for southern European countries. Considering Europe's ongoing political fragmentation, parties and groups that oppose different aspects of the process of Continental integration — whether it be the free movement of people or fiscal and banking integration in Europe — will continue to fare well, even if the refugee crisis is successfully managed.

The weak support shown for Germany's traditional parties on March 13 will only further hurt Germany's leadership in the European Union as well. Countries along the Balkan migration route have ignored Merkel's request to keep their borders open and to let migrants pass through their territories, and some EU members are challenging the Germany-sponsored agreement with Turkey. Meanwhile, countries such as Hungary oppose a plan to redistribute migrants across the European Union; Austria and France have expressed concern about lifting visa restrictions for Turkish citizens visiting Europe; and Cyprus is uncomfortable with resuming Ankara's EU accession talks. Turkey, for its part, has said it will not take back asylum seekers who are currently in Greece and that readmission agreements will only be applied to new migrants.

Europe's migration crisis began as the Continent was still struggling to recover from its financial crisis. But though the financial crisis transformed Germany into the most influential country in Europe, the refugee issue is weakening it. Germany's continued leadership of the European Union and Merkel's leadership of Germany are at stake. And as Europe's strongest leader falters, so will the entire European project.

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