The Rise of the Populists A Problem for Merkel and Germany

The state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania gave the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany a significant boost. It is a challenge for Chancellor Merkel and the entire country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel

A Commentary By

From a national political perspective, the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with its sparse population of 1.6 million, is a lightweight and largely meaningless. Usually. But this time around, following state parliament elections held there on Sunday, the situation is different. This vote, after all, was essentially a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel and her policies, which makes it quite meaningful indeed.

The results of that referendum don't look good for Merkel. Her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost four percentage points relative to the last time the state's voters went to the polls in 2011 for a result of just 19 percent -- while the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) brought in fully 20.8 percent of the vote. The party didn't even exist five years ago.

To be sure, the CDU hasn't done particularly well in the state for 20 years, but it is home to the chancellor's own parliamentary constituency, which means that the AfD has essentially staged a revolution in Merkel's backyard. And it did so by turning the elections into a single-issue vote: Merkel's refugee policies.

State Elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

The strategy was so successful that the CDU has been relegated to being just the third-strongest party in the state, behind the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the AfD. It marks the first time in Germany that the anti-Merkel party has come out ahead of Merkel's party -- and in some parts of the German leader's electoral district, AfD was the strongest party of all.

For the chancellor, it is a political debacle. Merkel must now come to terms with a challenge at least as monumental as the one which faced her predecessor Gerhard Schröder back in the mid-2000s. Back then, the SPD chancellor found himself trapped between, on the one hand, having to explain his cuts to social welfare benefits and, on the other, the rise of the Left Party, a political movement to the left of the SPD that was fueled by exactly those cuts. In the end, he failed on both counts.

The parallels to Merkel's situation -- a CDU that has been divided by her approach to the refugee crisis combined with the rise of a right-wing protest party -- are significant. But the end doesn't have to be the same. The Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania vote, after all, is only symbolically a debacle for Merkel. Her position as chancellor isn't (yet) at stake.

Emotions over Reason

But the returns on Sunday made clear that an increasing number of voters, at least in Germany's east, are turning their backs on the established, democratic party system. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to matter much if the economy is improving, cities are being renewed and the tourist sector is doing well, all of which are the case in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which has been structurally weak since German reunification in 1990. And it is possible for a party to campaign on fears of refugees even in a state that very few foreigners call home.

In short, emotions would seem to have triumphed over reason. Facts took a back seat.

It is precisely here that the challenge lies for Merkel, a politician who has always staked her political success on clear arguments based on facts and figures. She will have to do more explaining and more communicating -- and she will have to embed her policies within an approachable, meaningful framework in order to keep her party behind her. She may also have to take a few rhetorical steps toward the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has been sharply critical of her stance on the refugee issue. That could include admitting that she has made some missteps.

The CSU made it clear on Sunday evening that it wasn't interested in taking the pressure off Merkel. Senior party member Markus Söder spoke of the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania vote as being a "wake-up call" for German conservatives. But his true meaning was clear: It was a wake-up call for the chancellor first and foremost.

A Problem for Germany

Indeed, the renewed success of the AfD is likely to intensify the CSU's anger with Merkel. Suddenly, German conservatives must now deal with a rising force to their right, a phenomenon similar to the one from which the SPD still hasn't found a way to recover.

And like the Left Party, the AfD doesn't look as though it will be disappearing as a political force any time soon. The right-wing populists are on the rise in both Germany's east and west, and have proven adept at motivating non-voters as well as poaching voters from the CDU in addition to the SPD and even the Left Party. One of the primary emotions uniting this diverse mixture is outrage with the chancellor.

Furthermore, in contrast to the Left Party, which has taken steps to leave its origins as a neo-communist protest party behind it, the AfD's strength lies in its complete rejection of the party system as currently constituted. It isn't interested in playing by the rules; it seeks to agitate and subvert. Indeed, it is a party that represents a danger to democracy.

The problem represented by it isn't just one for Merkel. Nor is it only an issue for her conservatives. It is a problem for all of Germany.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Page 1 09/05/2016
1. Germany's Merkel - Rise of Populists
Where is analysis of the causes for the Rise Of Populists? I think voters have expressed their rejection of the present direction of the political course in Germany, and that is on account of the Immigration Policy to a large extent, and dissatisfaction with EU orientation does not help. Perhaps Chancellor Merkel should rethink her positions and bring them in line with the wishes of the voters. Failing to do so in due course will/ should bring changes in the German leadership. My preference is a change in present direction, but the Chancellor continues to reject it. Just why? Does she think the folks are stupid? I hope not, because her position depends on their votes. So what is it? Perhaps it is lack of flexibility.. Ms. Merkel has become used to getting her will. It cannot be ideology, because it was and remains a single action to allow mass immigration, and this without preparation via discussions in the country, building consensus, getting the logistics organized, etc. It was a lonely decision done without consultations... Was it a repeat of the open border for German refugees from the East coming via the Czech Republic near the end of the former German Democratic Republic... largely initiated by former Foreign Minister Genscher, FDP? If yes, then the fact remains that the refugees/immigrants with a totally different cultural background, religion, customs, etc were and are not readily integrated and not for lack of German language skills alone.. This should / could have been known and considered prior and not after the doors were opened and all normal controls over the process was lost. Sorry, in my view this has been a major failure of politics and leadership, with as yet unknown consequences. Karl
Kim6 09/05/2016
2. A problem rather for Merkel than for Germany
Right-wing populists are on the rise across Europe. They do not like the EU becoming a superstate. They will perhaps dissolve the EU or more likely transform it into an Economic Union. This is in line with the UK’s preferences. The chaos triggered by the failed migration policy has fostered BREXIT. Without the UK, Germany has lost a reliable partner in defending budget discipline and free trade. Now Germany can be outvoted by the Club Méd. Thus Germany will be forced to pay up for their debts. Consequently, the euro will be doomed. All this mess could have been avoided by introducing an immigration policy à la Australia, Canada, etc. There, illegal migrants never receive a residence permit and are deported. The EU’s dilemma is that it cannot take necessary decisions in time. Its self-imposed restrictions due to humanitarian considerations have caused more drowned migrants than the straightforward Australian way. For the time being it is only the foreign minister of Austria (conservative) who is openly advocating the Australian solution to the crisis. It remains to be seen whether and when the EU will implement that solution. This should be supplemented by aid programs in the immigrants’ homelands. Apparently, the EU will again do too little too late.
rgilbert 09/05/2016
3. A comment for Herr Fischer
I am an American whose wife is German and most of her family lives in Mecklenburg -Vorpommern. We have been fortunate to be able to go there many times. I found Mr. Fischer’s comments disturbing. Similar to the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” his chant is “left is good” “right is bad.” He takes the elitist liberal view that only people in large urban areas have the sophistication to understand a true world view, and that people who live in small towns and rural areas are so provincial that they are incapable of knowing what is good for them. I do not recall statements from the right or center calling for the ban on the Left or Green parties because they do not agree with them. Mr. Fischer’s view is seemingly that only his perception of Democracy is valid and that those who have different views are dangerous. That is not very democratic - and somewhat frightening.
michael_ah_oleary 09/05/2016
4. The People
It was the voters that voted against Mrs Merkel's policies. People vote for parties that are close to their interests.
Inglenda2 09/05/2016
5. Merkel is the problem, not the answer!
The real problem for Germany is not the AfD, or the refugees, it is the incapable Merkel government and those who follow them. Germany is more than able to give a million refugees a short term asylum, in suitable confined areas, but a free health service and education, permanent accommodation and a pocket money, which is higher than most retired women have, after paying their household expenses, are bound to cause trouble. The need for national border controls has never been more obvious than in the last twelve months, but those leading the country have a rhetoric, which only makes sense and is possible, from behind a shield of body guards. To say – we can do it – and then leave the work to volunteers, who have been deliberately mislead, is a scandal which could cause a damage to democracy throughout Europe. It is certainly not true to say the majority of foreigners now entering Europe are criminals, but some are very dangerous, as the stabbings in the British town of Brighton last week have shown. Until such persons have been filtered out, there is no point of trying to force integration. Just that is being done in Germany! Only when the newcomers are ready and willing, to accept the European way of life, can an understanding be expected from within the native population. Everything else is mumpits.
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