• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3
Why refugee crisis could hurt Merkel in state elections
Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) with Guido Wolf (m) and Julia Klöckner (r), lead candidates in upcoming state elections. Photo: DPA

Why refugee crisis could hurt Merkel in state elections

Tom Barfield · 4 Mar 2016, 12:00

Published: 04 Mar 2016 12:00 GMT+01:00

The answer: Germany's electoral calendar means the three states' polls are set to be the first real-world barometer of how Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy has affected her governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

"State parliament elections are often interpreted as national test elections," Professor Kai Arzheimer of the University of Mainz's Political Science department told The Local.

"New forms of political co-operation are tested, like the CDU-Greens coalition in Hesse or the Social Democratic Party (SPD)-Green coalition in Baden-Württemberg".

State politics also sets the political alignment of the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament, and provides an important recruitment pool for national politics.

A good result might be seen as an endorsement for Merkel that encourages her to stick to her chosen course.

Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at an election rally in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

But if the CDU wakes up on March 14th to an electoral disaster, there would inevitably be accusations that the Chancellor had undermined her own party with her moral stand.

This map shows where state elections will be held on March 13th. Rhineland-Palatinate in blue, Baden-Württemberg in yellow, Saxony-Anhalt in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons/The Local.

The biggest issue - the refugee crisis

Unsurprisingly, the refugee crisis has pushed other issues off the agenda ahead of the elections.

"The refugee crisis and the large support for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the dominant theme [in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg], even though it's only indirectly related to state politics," Professor Arzheimer said.

The scale of the refugee crisis and the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne have hit Merkel hard in the polls, and that's put the wind up CDU leaders in the south-west.

Both Guido Wolf in Baden-Württemberg and Julia Klöckner in Rhineland-Palatinate have called for tougher rules on asylum and refugees, including a fixed upper limit to the number who can enter Germany in any one year.

Refugees resting in Stuttgart's main station in September 2015. Photo: DPA

At the time, they were accused of 'stabbing Merkel in the back'.

But their main aim was to staunch the flow of conservative voters from the CDU to right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which looks set to enter both state parliaments for the first time.

Meanwhile in Saxony-Anhalt, the refugee crisis has dominated debate despite its limited impact on the eastern state, Professor Wolfgang Renzsch of the University of Magdeburg's Political Science department told The Local.

"Saxony-Anhalt only has 4,000 refugees at this point. The uptake of refugees here has worked very well, more people are volunteering to help than demonstrating against them on the streets.

"But the refugees are a reason for people to feel afraid, even if they aren't a real danger," he said.

SEE ALSO: Merkel speech quashes fear of party dissent

The personality question

Of course, there are other issues under discussion – German states have an extremely broad array of responsibilities, from infrastructure to agriculture to schools.

But "in both [Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate], the human question of who should be or remain minister-president is in the foreground," Mainz professor Arzheimer said.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, 43-year-old Klöckner - seen by some as a potential successor to Merkel - is challenging Social Democratic Party (SPD) minister-president Malu Dreyer, 55.

Julia Klöckner (CDU, left) and Malu Dreyer (SPD, right) are the two leading candidates in Rhineland-Palatinate. Photo: DPA

It's led to some of the first woman-versus-woman TV debates for the state leader's office. Klöckner has a lot of catching up to do, though, as 50 percent of voters would prefer to see Dreyer remain in office while just 30 percent hope Klöckner takes over.

In Stuttgart, meanwhile, Wolff, 54, hopes to unseat 67-year-old Green Party minister-president Winfried Kretschmann, who led the left to victory over the former CDU-Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition in 2011.

Winfried Kretschmann (Greens, left) and Guido Wolf (CDU, right) are the leading candidates in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

Kretschmann remains highly popular among voters in Baden-Württemberg, with 64 percent saying they would like him to remain minister-president while just 17 percent think Wolf could do a better job.

What are AfD's chances?

AfD has developed from a single-issue anti-Euro party into a more broadly populist one, with demands for much tougher asylum and migration rules at the heart of its programme.

Polling at 13 percent in both Baden-Württemberg and 9 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate according to the latest Deutschlandtrend poll on Friday, it looks certain to overcome the 5 percent threshold needed to send representatives to the south-west's state capitals.

Chart created with datawrapper. Data from ARD Deutschlandtrend.

That might block Klöckner or Wolf from taking the minister-president's office in either state, but is unlikely to upend regional politics.

The picture is different in Saxony-Anhalt, in the former East Germany, where AfD support is much more widespread.

"If the AfD achieves two-digit results, it will produce a political earthquake" in the state, professor Renzsch in Magdeburg said.

A legacy of broken promises

As one of Germany's economically weakest states – with the third-lowest GDP per capita in 2014 – Saxony-Anhalt is especially vulnerable to the appeal of right-wing populists, Renzsch argues.

Infografik: Bruttoinlandsprodukt pro Bundesland | Statista
Mehr Statistiken finden Sie bei Statista

Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, "the state in Eastern Europe [including the former German Democratic Republic] was seen as a sort of insurance agency that took care of everything," he explained.

"The state was seen as infallible. Now the state has retreated from many areas and lost this protective function, but people still blame it if they have trouble finding jobs or a home, if their pension is too low or if they're unemployed."

State politicians have regularly promised more than they can deliver in bringing back the imagined good old times, meaning "there's constant disappointment and frustration" with mainstream politics, he added.

This atmosphere allows far-right parties to capitalize on the idea that the state is providing services and support for refugees but not ordinary Germans.

Story continues below…

At the moment, that's translating into 19 percent backing for AfD in recent polling.

As the Linke (Left Party) is polling at 21 percent, the CDU and SPD may not win the 50 percent of seats between them needed to keep up their current 'grand coalition'.

That could leave them having to build an unwieldy three-party coalition with the Left or Green parties in the Magdeburg state parliament.

What about national consequences?

Renzsch argues that while the reservoir of resentment and frustration that fuels the AfD will persist, it's not clear whether the party will survive for very long in its present form.

"They have internal disagreements, some people want to profit personally by winning public office, and in these parties there are often radicalization spirals," he said. "Whoever shouts the loudest wins, but that can turn away voters".

AfD spokeswoman Beatrix von Storch caused a stir in January by suggesting police be allowed to fire on refugees at the border. Photo: DPA

SEE ALSO: Outrage after AfD call for armed force against refugees

For now, prominent politicians such as Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer are "legitimising" the AfD by taking up some of their talking points, Renzsch said.

But if Chancellor Merkel's hoped-for European solution to the refugee crisis finally crystallizes, support for further-right policies may ebb along with the numbers of refugees crossing the border.

In the south-west, meanwhile, Mainz's professor Arzheimer suggests that whatever the result the fallout will be limited.

"A bad result for Wolf or Klöckner would mostly have consequences for the candidates themselves," he said, "although it would also strengthen criticism of Merkel within the CDU."

If either of the two were to outdo expectations, "it would be to Merkel's benefit, as neither of the candidates has positioned themselves as a clear alternative to Merkel and neither has yet shown any national political ambition," Arzheimer said.

SEE ALSO: Six lessons Hillary Clinton can learn from Merkel's success

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

Today's headlines
Pegida take to Dresden streets - to march against Pegida
Pegida demonstrators. Photo: DPA

Followers of the xenophobic Pegida movement marched in two factions on Monday evening in the capital of Saxony, brandishing fierce accusations of treason against one another.

Analysis
Is it fair to call the AfD far right?
AfD leaders, from left, Georg Pazderski, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen. Photo: DPA.

The AfD has been dubbed "far-right" over the past year as it has taken on a tougher stance against immigration and made gains in state elections. But at what point does one call a group far-right?

Dresden police guard Islamic buildings after mosque attack
The Dresden mosque that was hit by a homemade bomb attack on Monday. Photo: DPA.

All Islamic buildings in the capital of Saxony have been put under police protection on Tuesday after explosive devices were detonated at a mosque and a congress centre in the city.

Germany blocks WhatsApp data transfers to Facebook
Photo: DPA

German data protection authorities on Tuesday said they had blocked Facebook from collecting subscriber data from its subsidiary WhatsApp, citing privacy concerns.

Stuttgart fest pulls in twice as many boozers as Oktoberfest
Is this Oktoberfest or is this Stuttgart's Cannstatter Volksfest? Can you tell the difference? Well, it's Stuttgart. Photo: DPA.

Apparently Munich is no longer the top place to wear lederhosen and down beer one litre at a time.

The Local List
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Photo: DPA

These films are so good, not even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari made the list.

Young man destroys 17 cars after visiting Oktoberfest

Early on Monday morning a drunk 29-year-old trashed 17 cars after staggering out of Oktoberfest into the Munich streets. It was one of several eye-popping crimes from "Wiesn" over the past few days.

VW emissions scandal
Audi tech chief leaves after reports link him to 'dieselgate'
Audi's head of technical development Stefan Knirsch stepped down on Monday. Photo: DPA.

Audi's head of technical development stepped down "with immediate effect" on Monday, the luxury carmaker announced, after German media accused him of involvement in parent company Volkswagen's "dieselgate" scandal.

Deutsche Bank shares hit lowest level in quarter century
Photo: DPA.

Shares in Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest lender, sank to a historic low on Monday after reports at the weekend that Berlin had refused state aid for the embattled lender.

The Local List
The 10 worst German cities for students to find digs
Photo: DPA

It's the start of autumn, which means the start of the university year. But along with the excitement comes the stress of finding housing - and in some glamorous locations this can be a nightmare.

Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Lifestyle
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
Lifestyle
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
National
Seven great reasons to stay in Germany this September
National
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
National
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
National
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
6,591
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd