Election Strategy

Merkel's Precarious Perch

ARCHIV - Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) verfolgt neben Bundeswirtschaftsminister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) am 09.09.2015 im Bundestag in Berlin die Debatte. Foto: Michael Kappeler/dpa (zu dpa "Gabriel attackiert Merkel: «Wir schaffen das» reicht nicht" vom 14.08.2016) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Angela Merkel is facing increased pressure from political rivals such as her deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t have many political allies these days. Once known as the unassailable Teflon chancellor, Ms. Merkel has seen her support erode so much in the wake of the refugee crisis that her political future is now an open question.

During an interview with public broadcaster ARD on Sunday, she was cagey when asked whether or not she planned to run for a fourth term in federal elections in September 2017.

“On the question of what I will decide regarding another candidacy for chancellor, I will make a statement at the appropriate time,” Ms. Merkel said.

The German daily Bild, citing sources close to Ms. Merkel, said the German chancellor is committed to seeking reelection and may even accelerate her announcement to December. Usually, German chancellors wait until the spring of the election year to formally announce their intentions.

She has good reason to be evasive. A poll published on Sunday by the Bild am Sonntag newspaper found that only 42 percent of Germans would like to see Ms. Merkel run again for chancellor next year. That is another three percentage points down from a similar survey conducted by the research firm TNS Emid last November.

Clearly, it’s not the opportune political moment to announce her candidacy.

It’s not even certain that Ms. Merkel will be able to rely on the support of her conservative allies. According to a report in Der Spiegel news magazine, citing a source close to discussions, Ms. Merkel is waiting to find out whether or not the CDU’s sister party, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, will back her as the two parties’ joint candidate in 2017.

In stark contrast to her reputation as Europe's most powerful leader, Ms. Merkel looked helpless during a meeting with Germany's Eastern European neighbors over the weekend.

The head of the CSU, Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, has broken with Ms. Merkel on several occasions. He remains one of the loudest critics of her 2015 decision to let hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany, which eventually grew to more than 1 million. Without support from Mr. Seehofer and his party, Ms. Merkel has no realistic chance of being reelected.

According to Bild, Ms. Merkel is considering publicizing her campaign this December to preempt Mr. Seehofer, and try to deprive him of some of the leverage he is trying to exert over her. By making an early announcement, Ms. Merkel, Bild reported, is gambling that her own coalition’s rank and file will fall in line.

Even though her support has slipped, she remains the top choice of most Germans for chancellor.

In an interview with the public broadcaster ARD, the chancellor reiterated her opposition to blocking refugees based on their religion. “What I continue to think is wrong is for some countries to say ‘We don’t want to have Muslims at all, regardless of there’s a humanitarian need or not,'”  she said.

Adding that “everybody has to do their bit,” Ms. Merkel said she didn’t rule out the possibility of allowing some countries to accept fewer migrants if they agreed to contribute more financially.

The debate over refugees in Germany has taken on renewed urgency in the aftermath of two attacks in Bavaria this summer, carried out by refugees and claimed by Islamic State.

In Sunday’s ARD interview, Ms. Merkel listed a number of new policies that she has introduced to meet the challenges of the refugee crisis. “We have made harder rules for those who have no potential to remain,” she said. “We have also told refugees that we expect them to obey our rules and learn German, and we’ve created the possibility to punish those who don’t.”

With the Christian Democrats in disarray, the center-left Social Democrats smell blood and are preparing to strike. Once reliable as a supporter of Ms. Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor and SPD head, has become increasingly critical.

“We have always said it’s unthinkable that Germany takes in a million people every year,” Mr. Gabriel said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF also on Sunday. “There’s something called an upper limit. That is the ability of our country to integrate refugees.”

Weakened at home, Ms. Merkel is struggling to project strength abroad. In stark contrast to her reputation as Europe’s most powerful leader, she looked almost helpless during a meeting with Germany’s Eastern European neighbors on Friday.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia again rejected Ms. Merkel’s repeated calls for resettling refugees throughout Europe under a binding quota system.

Unable to convince the Eastern Europeans, the German government is backing off and shifting its focus to securing the European Union’s external borders, according to Handelsblatt sources.

 

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Even French President Francois Hollande, an otherwise staunch supporter of  Ms. Merkel, has been wary to admit additional refugees for fear of bolstering support for the far-right National Front ahead of his country’s presidential elections next year.

Amid fatigue and heightened security concerns, there’s also little enthusiasm in Italy, Sweden and the Benelux countries for settling more refugees, leaving Germany to shoulder the burden.

The German refugee agency, BAMF, expects another 300,000 refugees to arrive in Germany this year, down from more than a million in 2015. But its projection depends on the E.U.’s precarious refugee deal with Turkey remaining in place.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, perhaps sensing Ms. Merkel’s weakened political position, has threatened to pull out of the agreement if the European Union doesn’t move forward with visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.

But the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, has called on Ms. Merkel and other European leaders to remain firm in the face of Turkish pressure.

“Turkey is profiting from the deal as much as we are,” Mr. Hahn told Handelsblatt.

Ankara doesn’t want to jeopardize the substantial financial assistance it receives from the European Union in exchange for taking refugees who are caught trying to enter Europe, he said.

Turkey also has less leverage over Europe now that the migration route from Turkey through Greece and the Balkans has been closed.

“The European Union isn’t as dependent on Turkey as many believe,” Mr. Hahn said.

 

Handelsblatt editors Ruth Berschens, Till Hoppe and Thomas Sigmund as well as Handelsblatt Global Edition senior editor John Blau collaborated on this story. To contact the authors: berschens@handelsblatt.com, hoppe@handelsblatt.com, sigmund@handelsblatt.com and blau@handelsblatt.com

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