Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats should be sitting pretty. With a hugely popular leader and a consistently strong lead in the polls, things really couldn’t be better.
However, the almost parallel rise of an upstart euro-skeptic party and an anti-immigrant popular movement has many in her party worried.
Voices in her Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, warn that the chancellor’s move to the center in recent years has opened up a flank on the right.
While the Alternative for Germany,or AfD, has won up to 10 percent in regional elections in eastern Germany only a year after forming, a series of marches by Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, have attracted up to 17,000 people in the eastern city of Dresden and far smaller numbers in cities in western Germany.
Now critics among the Christian Democrats warn that the new swell of populist conservatism could pose a real threat.
Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former interior minister and now the CSU deputy floor leader, has directly blamed Ms. Merkel for recent political developments.
Instead of taking on the AfD’s themes, Ms. Merkel had decided to occupy areas traditionally regarded as covered by the Social Democrats, or SPD, and Greens, he complained this weekend.
The Christian Democrats have been seen to move leftwards under Ms. Merkel, agreeing to issues like a gender quota, easing rules on skilled migration and dual citizenship and introducing a minimum wage in the current coalition with the SPD. Ms. Merkel also turned her back on nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster.
“The good opinion poll numbers are based on the fact that former SPD voters today can see Social Democratic polices put into reality by the CDU/CSU,” Mr. Friedrich told Der Spiegel newsweekly. That brings short-term success but he added “in the long term it is a huge mistake, which can only lead to the splitting and the weakening of the center-right camp.”
“In the past, we have dealt too lightly with the question of the identity of our people and our nation.”
The AfD, which was originally formed by those who opposed Germany’s role in saving the euro, has since taken on many traditional conservative and populist themes, such as being critical of immigration.
While the party has attracted support from all sections of the political spectrum, the CDU/CSU is the most concerned about the new party eating into its voter base.
The AfD has done particularly well in eastern Germany, entering three state parliaments this year in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia. Its leader, Bernd Lucke voiced his understanding for the Pegida movement, which has sprung up in Saxony’s capital, Dresden. “Most of their demands are legitimate,” he said earlier this month.
Pegida suppporters gather in Dresden’s central square on December 22, 2014.
The fear in some quarters within the Christian Democrats is that the AfD will be able to harness the discontent among alienated traditional conservatives, such as that expressed in the Pegida movement.
“If the CDU/CSU believes they don’t have to bother in particular any more about conservative voters because they will vote anyway for the CDU or CSU out of a lack of alternatives, that could be a fatal mistake,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a security expert for the CDU, told Handelsblatt. He pointed out that the AfD attracts voters from all parties and political directions. “It is also true, however, that a new political force has emerged to the right of the CDU/CSU that we cannot ignore.”
According to Mr. Friedrich, the rise of Pegida has shown that “in the past we have dealt too lightly with the question of the identity of our people and our nation.” Franz Josef Strauss, the former leader of the Bavarian party, once said that there should be no legitimate party to the right of the CSU. Mr. Friedrich argued that the CSU should once again be true to its original role of covering the right flank of the party spectrum.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, another leading CSU politician, said that “justified concerns” of Pegida supporters had to be taken seriously but she also sought to distance herself from them. Their slogans, she said, were sometimes “crazy, xenophobic or stupid.”
Meanwhile, Volker Bouffier, a deputy CDU leader, defended Ms. Merkel’s move to the center. “The CDU has to always remain recognizable. But we also have to find answers to questions that did not arise 10 or 20 years ago,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
“The CDU and CSU brand has to be economic competence and a solid financial policy,” said Hans Michelbach, head of a CDU group representing small and medium sized businesses. He argued that the party needed to reinforce this message in the year ahead with even more business friendly policies, rather than neglecting this core brand. “It would be a terrible mistake to move too far away from the center.”
“We've been a country of immigration for some time, and that's how we must continue.”
The Pegida rallies began two months ago, initiated first on social media in response to plans to build 14 refugee centers in Dresden. Last Monday’s demonstration attracted 17,000 people who gathered in the city’s main square to sing Christmas carols and chant slogans. There were also around 4,000 counter-demonstrators while 3,000 people in Bonn and 12,000 in Munich also marched against Pegida.
Germany is Europe’s biggest recipient of asylum seekers. It is expecting around 200,000 refugees in 2014, a significant increase on the 127,000 who applied for asylum in 2013. Most of those arriving in Germany are fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq.
The country is also the world’s second most popular destination for migrants after the United States.
Last week, Ulrich Grillo, head of Germany’s business association, the BDI, slammed the Pegida movement.
“We’ve been a country of immigration for some time, and that’s how we must continue,” he told the DPA news agency.
He said that Germany, with its aging population, relied on skilled migrants to maintain its status as a wealthy country, and that people needed to be told the advantages of more immigration. “Political leaders need to do much more to try to explain to people the opportunities and to remove fear,” he said.
Peter Thelen is a parliamentary reporter for Handelsblatt in Berlin, Jan Hildebrand is deputy bureau chief of Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.