Germany’s domestic unrest: Will Merkel alter her approach to migrants?

Recent elections have confirmed a rise in domestic upheaval on which nationalism and xenophobia have been flourishing

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is faced with an unpleasant political upheaval in her home turf. The recent elections in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania lander have confirmed a rise in domestic unrest on which nationalism and xenophobia have been flourishing.

Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), received a meager 19 percent of the votes in the very Lander that had elected her to the Bundestag since 1990. Worse, for the first time since the Second World War, the conservative party fell behind an extreme right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The ballot in Merkel’s lander opened a sequel of local electoral milestones which will eventually culminate in the 2017 general elections in which the German chancellor hopes to win a fourth term. On September 17, Berlin will in turn be the stage of another democratic battle. The Social Democratic Party is expected to register another victory far in front of the CDU. Yet, what every observer will pay close attention to is the score of the extreme right in the German capital city.

A more thorough look at the AfD success in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania provides a deeper understanding of the rise of extremism in Germany. The xenophobic party is now present in 9 of the 16 German landers parliament showing that it has become now a strong institutionalized political force.

However, the surge of this party in Merkel’s backyard has to be nuanced by the fact that it took over from other nationalistic parties such as the disappearing National Democratic Party (NDP) in an Eastern Germany more prone to extremist votes from far left to far right.

If the parallel with the rise of extreme right parties in other European countries can be made, the warning is even stronger in Germany than for its neighbors. Indeed, Germany does not have a culture of populism. Following the atrocities of the Nazi regime during the Second World War, xenophobic countries were not able to create long lasting roots in Germany. The Alternative for Germany party is the first one to go beyond the traditional shame and contrition in Germany in regards to their past.

Yet this shortsighted electoral behavior does not make economic sense. As opposed to France or South European countries, the level of unemployment in Germany barely reaches 4.7 percent. The German economy is actually in dire need of educated and affordable workforce.

If the Germans can be rightly concerned about the pressure on their salaries resulting from a large immigration flow, the truth remains that German companies have trouble hiring high value added employees and the relatively well educated Syrian refugee population is an asset for the competitiveness of the German industry.

As in neighboring Austria who also experienced record levels of populist votes in the latest presidential elections, the xenophobic vote is therefore more motivated by identity concerns than by economic realities. The number of acts of Islamophobia has indeed strongly increased. According to the German intelligence services, xenophobic acts of violence have been multiplied by almost 2 between 2014 and 2015 with in particular a criminal fire on every five days on average, mostly against refugees’ welcoming centers.

The populist movement

The AfD party has gradually mutated from a fiscally conservative anti-European Union party (in line with the UKIP platform in the United Kingdom) to an anti-immigration populistic movement. It was created only three years ago by academics such as Berndt Lucke, a professor of macroeconomics at Hamburg University whose objective was to call for a more egoistic approach to the Greek crisis management.
Its political platform now is mainly nourished by anti-Islam discourse as confirmed by the words of one of the movement’s European MPs, Beatrix Van Storch, who openly called for Islamophobia to be the backbone of the AfD.

Other leaders of the parties went as far as to encourage the police to use fire guns against immigrants, including women and children. The party leader, Fauke Petry even revived some Nazi terminology that had been banned from political discourse.

The proximity of general elections has also sharpened the appetite of Merkel’s traditional ally’s eager to differentiate themselves from the Chancellor in the hopes of accruing political gain. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Social-Christian Union (CSU) party, an indefectible ally to Merkel’s CDU party, clearly underlined the disastrous electoral results for the coalition in power and demanded modifications in Merkel’s fiscal, immigration and security policies.

Yet, Merkel still appears as the likely winner of next year’s election. The left wing SPD party has been a member of the grand coalition in power since 2013 when elections failed to designate a clear winner. As a result, its leader – Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel – hardly represents an alternative for change. If Merkel’s approval ratings have decreased to 45 percent, they are still far better than those of other head of states in Europe and relatively better than other politicians in Germany.

However, to ensure a halt in electoral defeat, Merkel probably will have to alter her generous approach toward Syrian migrants. Her recent public address did show a slight evolution in her position as she adopted a more assertive tone and moved away from her “Wir schaffen das” (We will succeed) traditional motto.

As a result, the CDU did win the local elections in Lower Saxony this Sunday preventing a new surge from the AfD. Yet, If the German conservative party should benefit in future elections from this change of tone, the country itself might prove to be on the losing edge as it turns its back to the humanistic and economically realist policy of refugee integration.

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