German election: is this really a verdict on Merkel’s open door to refugees?

Merkel took a hit at the polls but so have most other European leaders. Thomas Dämmrich, CC BY-NC-SA

Three German federal states have elected new parliaments in regional votes that have seen major gains made by Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party that wants drastically to reduce immigration to Germany. State parliaments in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt have been reshuffled, although the AfD didn’t actually come first in any of the votes.

These elections were being framed as a verdict on Merkel’s “open-door” refugee policy. Critics of her pro-refugee stance have been eager to observe that it has isolated her in her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and alienated many voters. Now, they say, the electorate has punished the whole party for Merkel’s single-handed attempt to help refugees.

At first glance, it seems they were right. The CDU has lost votes in all three federal states, and more than a few former CDU voters have switched to supporting the AfD.

The anti-Merkel, anti-establishment, anti-immigration rhetoric appealed particularly to voters in Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD became the second-strongest party. It also secured good results in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, winning more than 10% of the vote.

But to suggest that Merkel’s refugee policy sent voters “flocking to the populist party” is wrong, even dangerous.

AfD voters are, for the most part, not frustrated CDU voters but people who are so frustrated by party politics that they haven’t voted at all in past elections. Their discontent with the existing political system is not limited to Merkel’s immigration policy, even if it has become particularly visible. Many people feel that their voices and concerns are ignored by the CDU and other established parties.

Although the refugee crisis has been an important election issue, we shouldn’t fall into the rhetoric of right-wing populists and claim that it is solely responsible for the legitimacy crisis of representational politics in Germany. Rather than addressing the root causes of Germany’s social and economic problems, they blame migrants for everything that is going wrong.

In fact, a closer look at these election results shows that the people who won are, by and large, the people who support Merkel’s refugee policy.

Reading the results

Baden-Wuerttemberg is considered one of Europe’s economic powerhouses, and has the lowest unemployment rate in the German republic. For almost 60 years, it was governed by conservatives. That changed with the elections in 2011 when the Green Party’s Winfried Kretschmann became Prime Minister of the state. Kretschmann is an explicit supporter of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. He has been re-elected in 2016, achieving an even better result for his party than in 2011.

Neighbouring state Rhineland-Palatinate has been governed by a red-green coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens since 2011. This has long been an SPD stronghold, and the party again won this election – albeit narrowly. Prime Minister Malu Dreyer was re-elected in spite of (or perhaps because of) her pro-refugee stance.

Dreyer’s rival, the conservative Julia Klöckner is one of several prominent politicians in the CDU who have openly criticised Angela Merkel’s “welcome policy” – a strategy which didn’t pay off in these elections.

Saxony-Anhalt is a bit different. It struggles economically and the unemployment rate is almost three times higher than in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Protestors hold a sign reading ‘Queen of the human traffickers’. EPA/Patrick Seeger

CDU Prime Minister Reiner Haseloff has been in office since 2011, and will remain there if he can build a majority government (although this might be difficult because he refuses to collaborate with the AfD, which is now the second strongest party in parliament).

Like Klöckner, Haseloff is critical of Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. However, he also distances himself decisively from the right-wing populism. He has warned that there has been a shift to the right across Europe, and emphasised that the threat of right-wing populists needs to be tackled at all levels of society.

Why so popular?

Due to the strong focus on the refugee question, a number of central problems have been neglected by the mainstream parties in the run up to this year’s elections. They haven’t focused on the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Germany and across the world, economic and political insecurities within and beyond the European Union, and the fact that many people feel alienated from the people supposedly elected to represent them.

There is good reason to believe that all of these factors have contributed to the rise of the AfD, and the ways in which other politicians respond to them could decide the future of the AfD and other right-wing populist parties.

Even if it seems that migrants have become a scapegoat for everything that is going wrong in German politics, nobody can seriously claim that a clampdown on immigration would solve all of Germany’s social, political, and economic problems.

Many of Merkel’s party colleagues disagree with her pro-refugee stance, and have distanced themselves from the Chancellor. But even if she were overthrown as CDU leader, her replacement would have a hard job persuading voters that established parties can meet the challenges of our times – regardless of where they stand on immigration. From austerity to the eurozone crisis, to the global financial meltdown, migration is not the only thing voters think about when they head to the polls.