In the face of the Syrian refugee crisis, much of Europe seemed to close itself down against the wave of immigrants. But Ms. Merkel stood firm, opening the door for refugees in Germany.
Even as she stands by her policy, her party now seems to be on the ropes because of it. And her popularity as a chancellor is reaching dangerous lows.
Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democrats, suffered a resounding defeat Sunday in a local election in Merkel’s home state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The Social Democrats won 30.6 percent of the vote, and the Christian Democrats scored a record low of 19 percent in the state, according to the BBC. But of more concern to Merkel and the CD is the second-place surprise winner: the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which received 20.8 percent of the vote.
Although the former Communist state is Germany’s poorest and least populous, it carries a symbolic meaning as it is home to Merkel’s constituency Stralsund.
The polls are also held exactly a year after the German leader made the momentous decision to let in tens of thousands of Syrian and other migrants marooned in eastern European countries.
Although she won praise at first, the optimism has given way to fears over how Europe’s biggest economy will manage to integrate the million people who arrived last year alone.
Her decision has left her increasingly isolated in Europe, and exposed her to heavy criticism at home, including from her own conservative allies.
“That is a slap in the face for Ms. Merkel,” Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD, told the public broadcaster ZDF, according to The New York Times. “That is a slap for the chancellor in her home state.”
In the sprawling farming and coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where economic regeneration and jobs used to top residents’ concerns, the issue of refugees and integration has become the deciding factor for one in two voters.
“I am voting AfD. The main reason is the question over asylum-seekers,” said a pensioner and former teacher who declined to be named.
“A million refugees have come here. There is money for them, but no money to bring pensions in the east to the same levels as those of the west,” he said, referring to the lower retirement payments that residents of former Communist states receive compared to those in the west.
The AfD was formed only three years ago and has steadily gained support from inflamed anti-immigrant feelings in the country, exacerbated by Merkel’s open border policy. Germany has taken in more than a million refugees in the past year and a half, though that rate has decreased recently. While some 238,424 new arrivals came to the country between January to July, many of those came early in the year. Since then, the rate has dropped to around 16,000 per month, according to the Associated Press.
The defeat of the Christian Democrats by the AfD was a surprise, but the upstart party is part of a greater shift toward the right seen across Europe, with fears of terrorism, support for isolationism, and strong anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming the norm. Increasingly, security has become the top concern for voters throughout Europe.
As security shoots to the top of voter concerns, surpassing even unemployment, socialists across the continent find themselves in a bind. While they are under pressure to move rightward to bolster their security credentials among voters, doing so also runs the risk of undermining their base, by targeting the sorts of minorities that they seek to represent.
The once-popular chancellor, affectionately referred to as “Mutti” (“Mom”) by supporters, is now dogged by polls like one released earlier this week that says that 50 percent of Germans do not want her to run for a fourth term in 2017, according to Reuters. The same poll found that two out of three Germans were unhappy with how she has handled the refugee crisis.
Despite the low ratings, the most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes, is still expected to run in and win the 2017 election, according to analysts. But the recent defeat in her home state has put her on the defensive, admitting the AfD would be a “challenge” to overcome.
In an address at the Bundestag Wednesday, she assured immigration skeptics that “Germany would remain Germany, and so would all that is dear to it.” She denied a rumor that the influx of refugees would lead to welfare cuts for native Germans, according to Deutsche Welle.
She also warned other parties against stooping to the tactics of the AfD, saying that if the inflammatory rhetorical style of right-wing populism became the norm, “only those who rely on slogans and seemingly easy answers” would ever win an election.
“When we join in with this behavior where facts are ignored or brushed aside, then a responsible and constructive debate is no longer possible,” she told the Bundestag.