German nationalists seek gains in Merkel's political base

AP , Saturday 3 Sep 2016

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, July 28, 2016. (photo: AP)

 Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision a year ago to open the borders to a surge of migrants is casting a long shadow over a state election this weekend in Germany's economically weak northeast, where an anti-immigration party is poised for strong gains.

Polls suggest that the 3-year-old Alternative for Germany can expect to win over 20 percent of votes Sunday in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a coastal region where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency.

That would give it a chance of overtaking Merkel's conservatives for second place, and perhaps even finishing as the strongest party in the state legislature. That would be an embarrassment, though a manageable one, for the chancellor as she looks ahead to national elections next year.

The migrant influx that saw Germany register more than a million newcomers last year has divided Germans and helped reduce Merkel's popularity ratings from stellar to solid. New Year's Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, and two attacks committed by asylum-seekers in July and claimed by the Islamic State group, have raised tensions.

The influx has slowed drastically this year. Merkel says the government has "worked incessantly," citing moves to toughen asylum rules and integrate refugees. She has stuck to her insistence, first voiced a year ago, that "we will manage" the refugee crisis.

Still, Alternative for Germany, or AFD, has thrived over recent months by opposing Merkel's approach. It fared well in three state elections in March. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a sparsely populated area of the formerly communist east, looks like fertile ground.

"There is an alliance of all parties under the chancellor's motto, 'We will manage it,' and we are the only ones who say we don't want to manage it at all," AfD deputy leader Alexander Gauland said this week. His party has no intention of going into government, and other parties won't work with it.

Gauland said that while people in Mecklenburg may have no refugees in their villages, "they of course see on television, and in the streams that have come to Germany, there's a threat to what they feel is home."

He described Merkel's late-night decision on Sept. 4 last year, along with Austria's then-chancellor, to open the borders to migrants from Hungary as "dictatorial."

Such sentiments combine in Mecklenburg with long-standing resentment in rural areas that have seen facilities dwindle as the population shrinks, according to Hajo Funke, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University. The state's 9 percent unemployment rate is well above the 6.1 percent national average.

Mecklenburg is currently the only state where the far-right National Democratic Party — which Parliament's upper house is trying to ban — is represented in a state legislature. Polls suggest it may be swept out Sunday as some supporters switch to AfD.

The state has been run for a decade by the parties that currently govern Germany. The center-left Social Democrats lead the regional government, with Merkel's Christian Democrats as their junior partners.

Keen to prevent their supporters from jumping ship, local leaders have resorted to sharp rhetoric on Muslims and the migrant crisis.

The state's conservative interior minister, Lorenz Caffier, has led calls within the Christian Democrats for Germany to ban the burqa and other face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women.

Center-left governor Erwin Sellering said Merkel "awakened the impression last fall that we had to take in unlimited numbers of refugees, and at the same time acted as though everyone who expressed reservations was either far-right or an idiot."

The Mecklenburg election comes as German politicians begin to focus on a national election expected in late September 2017. It's the first of five state votes before then, with the next due in Berlin Sept. 18.

Merkel has yet to say whether she will seek a fourth term next year, as is widely expected. There is no obvious alternative, and no sign of a challenger, in her conservative bloc. Merkel has held her constituency in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania since 1990.

The fallout for the chancellor from Sunday's result, however it turns out, should be limited. It's unlikely to help heal a festering spat between Merkel and the Bavarian branch of her conservative bloc, which has spent the past year criticizing her refugee policy.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is home to only 1.6 million of Germany's 80 million people. AfD won 24.3 percent of the vote in another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, in March and that didn't shift government policy.

Merkel "has strong nerves," Funke said. "She can hold course with great determination when she makes a decision, and on the question of refugee policy she decided out of conviction."

"I don't think she will be deflected from this course by these results," he said, "because it is only Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania."

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