September 05, 2016
The beginning of the end
It was a catastrophic day for Angela Merkel and her CDU. The party was relegated to third place by the AfD in the state elections of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany's most northeastern state, and everybody is blaming the chancellor and her immigration policies for the defeat.
There are a number of similarities, but also differences, between Gerhard Schroder's agenda of economic reforms and Merkel's refugee policy. What they both have in common is that they were politically disastrous for their parties. We agree with the general interpretation of yesterday's defeat as a harbinger of Merkel's political demise. But don't hold your breath. We still think she is going to run in 2017, and end up forming a coalition government. But that outcome is a touch less certain today and, if it were to happen, the high point of the Merkel chancellorship is long past. Of that there can be no doubt.
The big news yesterday was the AfD's second place in the state elections, after the SPD. The AfD even managed to surpass the CDU in parts of Merkel's own constituency of Rugen - not that this has any direct significance given the proportional nature of German elections.
Here are the preliminary results. Note the zero seats for the three small parties are the result of a five percent voting threshold.
The knives are already out for Merkel. The Bavarian finance minister Markus Soder - a man to watch in German politics - called the result a wake-up call for CDU/CSU, and demanded a reversal of Merkel's immigration policies. The CDU's result was weaker than in any of the polls, which is something that will make the party leadership nervous. The rebound of the SPD is interesting. The SPD is currently running a coalition government in the state together with the CDU, and was down and out in the polls six months ago. What seems to be working for the party is a combination of perceived competence at the regional level - the local PM is quite popular - and Sigmar Gabriel's parallel turn against TTIP and Merkel's immigration policies.
Sebastian Fischer writes in Der Spiegel that this is not yet about Merkel's 2017 candidacy. But that moment is getting closer. The mantra for the CSU has always been never to be surpassed by a right-wing party. This has now happened for the first time. The row over Merkel's immigration policy is now certain to flare up again, with only a year to go until the elections. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has had a fairly robust economic performance, but that seems to count for nothing at a time when people are afraid of immigrants. His conclusion is pessimistic. The AfD is not going to disappear, and the party is not only a danger for Merkel herself, but also for the country at large.
The CDU still has no obvious successor in place. What complicates matters now is Gabriel's U-turn on immigration policy, as he notes that SPD voters in particular are in danger of drifting to the AfD. While the government has toughened its immigration policy over the last year, the political effects of Merkel's decision to open the borders a year ago are only now beginning to come through. What is dangerous for her is the fact that the CDU may conclude that it can score a better result with a broadly similar leader, but less personally committed to her immigration policies. The next big event to watch out for are the regional elections in Lower Saxony next week, the state elections in Berlin the following week, and the CDU party congress on December 14-15. Merkel said she would only consider running again if she is re-elected CDU chair. This will be the big test.