Above left- Angela Merkel; above right- Frauke Petry
Sunday, Germans went to the polls in three states. The first was Baden-Wurrtenberg centered in Stuttgart followed by Rhine-Palatinate, northwest of Baden, and Saxony-Anhlat, an area to the west of Berlin in what was formerly part of East Germany. Like most elections, they are often viewed through the prism of national politics. Germany awards seats in state parliaments on a proportional basis with a 5% threshold being required to gain any seats.
The party players are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s party, followed by the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Other parties are the Green Party, the Left Party, and the one of most interest- the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party which has been in existence for a mere three years. The AfD which started as a party opposed to the economic policies of Merkel has recently found an audience in espousing anti-immigrant policies. Their national leader, Frauke Petry, recently suggested that border guards should shoot at Syrian refugees with live ammunition.
The AfD shares a lot in common with other extreme right wing parties which have sprung up in Europe, especially Central Europe and to a lesser extent in France. Although formed by noted economists in Germany, the recent Muslim refugee crisis afflicting Europe, especially Germany, has propelled their growth. In the 2013 federal elections, they just missed the threshold for making it into the national parliament. Instead, over subsequent state level elections in 2014 and 2015, they managed to gain representation in five of Germany’s states.
On Sunday, they added three more states to their list of state parliamentary representation. The most stunning gains were made in Saxony-Anhalt. The eastern states in Germany tend to be more right wing than those in the former West Germany, but what surprised most observers was the fact they garnered 34% of the vote propelling them to second place. They also had solid performances in the other states getting 15% in the more prosperous Baden-Wurrtenberg state and 13% in Rhine-Palatinate.
The state parliamentary seats gained by AfD came at the expense of Angela Merkel’s CDU Party. This can only be interpreted as a rebuke to her almost religious insistence of allowing more Islamic refugees into Germany. This issue has become a flash point in other areas of Europe, particularly the countries of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, to a lesser extent, Slovenia. Amid some high profile cases, notably the New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Cologne, parties like the AfD are appealing to European nationalist tendencies. They are arguing that allowing unfettered Islamic migration into their countries is challenging their national character. Coupled with the attacks in France and tracing those terrorists to Belgium and Holland, one can understand the concern of people looking to a political party that listens to their fears.
These gains by AfD certainly complicate matters for Merkel who is attempting to fashion a deal with Turkey to deter and/or thwart the migration of refugees into Europe. They also complicate the future of the European Union. Merkel was already under criticism by the AfD and other parties who felt she did not deal adequately with Greece and their financial woes.
Merkel and her CDU have ruled Germany since 2005 in coalition with the Socialist Democratic Party. However, the emergence of the political gains by AfD could potentially alter that dynamic. Given their gains at the local and state level, they are expected to gain seats in the national parliament in 2017. Their gains in these three states on Sunday indicate that they and their anti-immigrant policies present a complicating challenge to Merkel. Although she herself may be safe for a fourth term by most indications at this time, her pro-immigrant policies are being rebuked.
These results could also potentially foretell election results in France in 2017. Francois Hollande is insistent on taking in more refugees this year. Unfortunately for him, he enjoys approval ratings hovering near 15%, ominous for an incumbent. Like elsewhere, it is the rise of more extremist right wing parties that is fueling the loss of power. Additionally, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced he will hold a referendum on Great Britain’s continued presence in the European Union. On a recent trip to Germany, he reportedly reached out the leadership of AfD in an attempt to find common ground. As with most of the debate, it centers how welcoming each country should be towards immigrants, a debate with echoes here in the United States.