BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t face voters until October 2017, but her decadelong dominance of the German political scene will be sorely tested in three key state elections this weekend.
Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy on migrants is turning off many of her longtime supporters, and an anti-immigrant right-wing party could make big gains.
Listen to Bernd Muenchinger, who says he identifies with Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and agrees with its candidate for premier, Guido Wolf, on most issues related to Sunday’s elections in the rich southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
But the 52-year-old owner of a public relations firm intends to vote for the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate, Hans-Ulrich Rulke. The reason: He wants to take a stand against Ms. Merkel and her policy of welcoming refugees.
Mr. Wolf, the CDU candidate, “is for the refugee plan of Ms. Merkel, but his opponent is against it,” Mr. Muenchinger said. “So everyone who votes for Wolf is voting for Merkel. Many people will not vote CDU, even though they agree with the CDU on 90 percent of the issues, because they don’t want to support Angela Merkel’s refugee plan.”
The chancellor’s refusal last year to limit the number of refugees Germany would accept amid Europe’s migrant crisis has caused a shake-up in her party and threatens to upend a German political landscape that Ms. Merkel has dominated since taking office in November 2005.
More than 1 million asylum seekers entered the country last year, sparking a backlash among citizens who have raised concerns about integrating the largely Muslim, non-German-speaking newcomers.
“It looks as though the refugee crisis has brought a significant rupture” in the famously stable German political landscape, journalist and editor Dirk Kurbjuweit wrote in an essay Tuesday for the online version of Der Spiegel. “To be sure, the German Constitution and the country’s institutions won’t be called into question anytime soon. But the conventions governing Germany’s political interactions are changing with incredible speed.”
Prominent CDU leaders and those of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have butted heads with the chancellor over her refugee policy. CSU Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer has even threatened to take legal action to close German borders to refugees.
Asked by Der Spiegel last week whether the CSU could support Ms. Merkel in federal elections late next year if her refugee policies do not change, Mr. Seehofer replied, “Next question.”
The rifts are reorienting German politics. While the CDU and CSU are fighting, Ms. Merkel’s policies have attracted unlikely supporters from the left.
Taz, a left-leaning newspaper, ran an editorial this month saying many voters for leftist parties such as the Social Democratic Union (SPD), the Green Party and the Left Party should now be willing to vote CDU — despite its conservatism — to support Ms. Merkel’s generosity toward refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other global crisis spots.
That advice will get a real-world test with the Feb. 13 state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, the first major elections in Germany since May that many now see as a referendum on Ms. Merkel’s leadership.
Mr. Wolf’s campaign manager, Thorsten Frei, said one of the biggest challenges for the Baden-Wuerttemberg campaign is focusing voters on state-specific issues, not on the emotional immigration debate.
“We are working on getting the message out to voters that the election is about state issues like security, education for children and youths, and further developing infrastructure like roads and rails, but also faster Internet,” Mr. Frei said.
But the Wolf campaign faces an uphill battle in the state, traditionally a CDU stronghold but one that fell to the Green Party in the last election over Ms. Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power. She reversed her stance and decided to shutter the country’s nuclear plants by 2022 after the accident at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.
Aside from the Green Party incumbent, Winfried Kretschmann, Mr. Wolf has to contend with Joerg Meuthen of the eurosceptic right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, founded three years ago.
The AfD, which has gained supporters amid the backlash against refugees and whose leaders have been known to advocate violent measures to protect German borders, caters to former CDU members who believe their party has moved too far to the left under Ms. Merkel.
In a worrying sign from Ms. Merkel and the CDU, the AfD scored a strong result over the weekend in municipal elections in Hesse, finishing third with 13.2 percent of the vote, behind the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats but ahead of the Green Party. The CDU’s share of the vote also slumped from 34 percent five years ago to 28.2 percent.
Although the AfD is expected to pry loose some votes from the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg, its traditional stronghold is the east. The conservative party caters to less-affluent East Germans who feel like second-class citizens in their reunited country. AfD leaders said they expect to garner as much as 20 percent of the vote in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
“We are the only opposition in Germany,” AfD spokesman Christian Lueth said. “All the other parties are going in the same direction of letting everyone in. We have enough to deal with in Saxony with the bad economy.”
Although the AfD is not likely to win a majority in any state, Nils Diederich, a political science professor at the Free University in Berlin, said the elections would demonstrate whether the party could bring disengaged Germans to the polls.
“For a little over a decade, we have seen voter turnout shrinking in Germany from 70-80 percent to 59-60 percent, which is relatively low,” Mr. Diederich said. “It will be interesting to see if the refugee crisis will mobilize more voters. I suspect that the AfD will profit greatly from motivating people to vote.”
The FPD, a centrist, pro-market party that has often played the kingmaker role between Germany’s center-left and center-right parties, is also experiencing growth from the erosion of the CDU.
Although FPD members were kicked out of government in the last round of elections in 2013, the party is now garnering more support because of its image as a more moderate and business-friendly alternative to the CDU. Candidates currently poll nationwide at 6 percent to 8 percent, but the party could use a good showing in the state elections as a springboard to re-enter the national stage.
Still, some analysts expect a CDU win in Saxony-Anhalt as well as Rhineland-Palatinate, where Julia Kloeckner is running for the conservatives.
Breaking with Merkel
Ms. Kloeckner and Mr. Wolf have tried to distance themselves from Ms. Merkel by advocating for an upper limit to asylum seekers, an effort to calm voter fears after the New Year’s sexual attacks on women in Cologne that were blamed on refugees. To date, only one man has been convicted in connection with the assaults.
Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, said the move to distance themselves could backfire, especially considering that Mr. Kloeckner is being considered as a successor to the 61-year-old chancellor.
“I don’t think that the candidates that drafted the plan benefited from it. If anything, they damaged themselves,” Mr. Forbrig said of CDU rebels. “Kloeckner has to do very well in the election to maintain a bright future because Merkel is not going to forget that semi-disloyal attitude.”
While the refugee crisis is posing problems for CDU politicians campaigning at the state level, Mr. Forbrig insists that disappointments in regional elections would not affect Ms. Merkel’s hold on power in Berlin. “She may get a little bruised, but she won’t be beaten in a way that questions her position on a national level,” he said.
Polls say 60 percent of Germans are unhappy with the government’s refugee policy, yet Ms. Merkel retains popularity, said Ralf Welt, head of Dimap Communications, a political think tank and Berlin-based pollster.
“Seventy-five to 90 percent of Germans believe that refugees should be accepted owing to political, religious and ethnic reasons or natural disasters,” Mr. Welt said. “The chancellor is getting better at showing that this is the group of people that she is letting in and not economic migrants. It is helping her popularity.”
Ms. Merkel has sent Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to North Africa to establish that Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are safe countries of origin where refugees can be repatriated. That move and others to curb the refugee presence in Germany were designed to blunt criticism of her policies within her own government. Also, the government has tightened asylum laws and made it more difficult for refugees to reunite with relatives.
Even so, Ms. Merkel is sticking to her line of welcoming all asylum seekers, a policy that has not endeared her to southern European nations that are on the front lines of the migrant wave. She appeared on German television late last month saying she would “do her damned duty” on refugees.
Regardless of their political persuasions, Germans like a steadfast leader, analysts say, something Ms. Merkel, long known for her pragmatism and lack of policy, has now become.
“Germans find it reassuring that she doesn’t constantly change her position,” said Mr. Forbrig. “People are fatigued by politicians’ flip-flopping and striking backroom deals.”