Chancellor Angela Merkel is sticking to her controversial refugee policy, even after a bitter election loss in her home state to the insurgent Alternative for Germany party.
Ms. Merkel received the bad news at the G20 summit in China, some 8,500 kilometers away from her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in eastern Germany.
The AfD won 21 percent of the vote in the regional election, surpassing Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, or CDU, for the first time in Germany.
“It's an appeal, a wake up call, a shot across the bow. We cannot ignore it. ”
The populist party, which bitterly opposes her liberal refugee policy, is now the second strongest political faction in the state where the chancellor has her constituency.
There was no way for Ms. Merkel to spin the stinging rebuke. During a press conference in China, the chancellor said she was “very dissatisfied” with the election result.
Yet she didn’t back down from her decision to open Germany’s borders to more than 1 million migrants and refugees last year. She stood firm and defended her policies.
“It of course has to do with refugee policy,” Ms. Merkel said of the election result. “I am of course responsible, but I hold the decisions that we’ve made to be correct.”
She cited the “rapidly reduced number of refugees” in Germany as a sign of progress and vowed to integrate those who are allowed to stay while deporting those whose asylum applications are rejected.
Though she defended her policies, Ms. Merkel was forced to publicly acknowledge that voters were losing confidence in her government.
“Our mission now is to work intensively to win back trust,” Ms. Merkel said.
It’s taken two years for the chancellor to acknowledge the growing unease in the country. During that time, the AfD has been on a victory march across Germany, winning representation in one regional parliament after another.
With its victory in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the AfD now has representation in nine out of 16 state assemblies. Recent polling puts the AfD in third place nationally with 12 percent support.
“It’s a wake up call, a shot across the bow,” Thomas Strobl, the deputy head of the CDU, told Handelsblatt. “We cannot ignore it.”
With federal elections a year away, Ms. Merkel’s party colleagues fear they’re heading for a debacle unless there’s a change of course.
“There’s unease, frustration and outrage,” said Carsten Linnemann, head of the CDU’s small business association. People have the feeling that “those above don’t know what’s happening below,” he said.
Even before Sunday’s bad result, the CDU’s parliamentary faction met to discuss a “crisis of confidence” in Germany.
The country had been shaken this year by a series of sexual assaults by refugees in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and two attacks carried out by refugees in Bavaria this summer that were claimed by the terrorist group Islamic State.
The attacks and the rise of the AfD have driven a wedge between Ms. Merkel’s CDU and its more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, has been one of the most vocal critics of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy within Germany’s political mainstream. The election defeat in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has only fueled the CSU’s call for a tougher asylum policy.
“The election result is a clear rejection of additional immigration,” said Max Straubinger, a senior CSU parliamentarian.
Yet Ms. Merkel has shown little interest in accepting the CSU’s key demands, such as an upper limit on asylum applicants. Mr. Strobl called on the two parties to resolve their differences if they’re to stand a chance in 2017 elections.
“Nothing hurts the CDU and the CSU more than a fight among the two sister parties,” Mr. Strobl said.
This weekend could be a moment of reckoning. The CSU will hold a party meeting and the leaders of Ms. Merkel’s right-left coalition will meet in Berlin. Mr. Seehofer will “very clearly” represent his positions during the coalition meeting, said CSU secretary general Andreas Scheuer.
The CSU isn’t Ms. Merkel’s only problem. She also faces mounting opposition on her left flank. Though the Social Democrats have largely supported the chancellor’s liberal refugee policy, SPD leader and deputy chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has grown increasingly critical.
“We have always said it’s unthinkable that Germany takes in a million people every year,” Mr. Gabriel said in a recent interview with public broadcaster ZDF. “There’s something called an upper limit. That is the ability of our country to integrate refugees.”
Mr. Strobl blames Mr. Gabriel in part for the AfD’s success in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania: “It was cheap campaign tactics for the SPD and it hurt everyone in the end,” he said.
Yet some parties were hurt more than others. While the CDU dropped to third place, the Social Democrats remained the top party with 30.5 percent of the vote, even if their support declined by five points over the last election in 2011.
As the political losses mount and her coalition unravels, Ms. Merkel’s famously calm facade is beginning to crack. According to Handelsblatt’s sources, she looked “depressed” in a teleconference held after he election results. That can’t bode well for the CDU’s future.
Sven Afhüppe is Handelsblatt’s editor in chief, Daniel Delhaes is a political correspondent in Berlin, Thomas Sigmund is the paper’s Berlin bureau chief. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.