Merkel Faces Another Bruising Vote

The populist AfD are projected to win up to 13 percent in the state election in Berlin on Sunday. With Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats likely to be booted out of the ruling coalition in the city, the vote will once again pile the pressure on the chancellor over her refugee policy.

Handelsblatt Global, September 16, 2016 

They came in small numbers but were loud, angry and out to make trouble.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel was addressing a rally of a few thousand supporters of her conservative Christian Democrats in a leafy suburb of western Berlin on Wednesday night around 30 supporters of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party turned up. The group heckled, showed red cards and chanted “Merkel Must Go!”

Once again Germany’s upstart populists were proving to be something of a headache for the chancellor.

This Sunday, her CDU party is facing another tough vote just two weeks after a particularly bruising encounter with the electorate.

 On September 4, the party was humiliated in the rural eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania when it only got 19 percent of the vote, pushing it into third place behind the AfD, which won 21 percent. In cosmopolitan urban Berlin this Sunday, the AfD won’t do quite so well but it’s still expected to get 13 percent, according to a Forsa poll released on Thursday. Meanwhile the CDU is expected to only get around 17 percent and be booted out of the left-right coalition with the SPD that has governed the city state since 2011.

While the anti-immigrant AfD were disappointed to only come fourth in Lower Saxony’s local elections last weekend, that vote for councils and mayors in small towns and villages was particularly difficult for the party which only formed in 2013 and has yet to develop an extensive grassroots organization across the country.

“All state elections in Germany are also a plebiscite over the governing coalition in Berlin.”

Timo Lochocki, German Marshall Fund, Berlin

“I would not see the Lower Saxony vote as an indication that the rise of the AfD has been halted,” said Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at the University of Mainz.

Furthermore, the Berlin vote comes as both Ms. Merkel’s personal ratings and CDU support nationally continue to nosedive over her decision last year to allow 1 million refugees into the country.

Although she has no obvious rival, these setbacks have led to speculation about whether she will run for a fourth term in the next federal election in 2017.

And another strong showing for the AfD on Sunday will likely pile the pressure on the chancellor particularly from her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union.  The CSU leader, Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, has been a thorn in her side this past year, constantly complaining about the influx of refugees and demanding upper limits to those the country can take in.

Yet in Berlin, the refugee issue is not at the forefront of the campaign. In fact the city is remarkably tolerant on the issue with a recent survey showing over half of Berliners — 52 percent — feel that the new arrivals are a positive addition to the city. Many Berliners are more concerned with local issues, such as rising rents, the poor state of schools or the ongoing fiasco over the failure to open the new airport. The hipster capital of Europe may be home to plenty of cool startups and cultural institutions but it lacks much real industry and its unemployment rate at around 10 percent is still above the national average.

The capital has never been a stronghold for the CDU apart from in some affluent western suburbs.

Its more liberal voters have veered towards the Greens or the pro-business Free Democrats, or even the Pirates, the pro-privacy activists who garnered 9 percent in 2011 but will probably fail to get more than around 1 percent this time. In the former east of the city, the far-left Left Party, the successor party to the former East German communists, has always polled strongly. It is here that support for the AfD, which had not yet been formed when the city last voted in 2011, is strongest, is at around 20 percent. Yet the party is also polling at around 15 percent on the western edges of the city.

Meanwhile, the SPD has long dominated politics in Berlin. The center-left party has been in every government in the newly reunited city since the fall of the wall. It may have lost its charismatic leader, former mayor Klaus Wowereit, in December 2014. Yet, his successor, mild mannered and rather dull Michael Müller is still far more popular than the CDU leader in the city, deputy mayor and state interior minister Frank Henkel, a hardliner on law and order.

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