Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

Why the refugee crisis may sweep Angela Merkel to a 4th election victory

Does the refugee crisis spell doom for Merkel and usher in the end of her chancellorship? Not necessarily. After a decade in the job she shows remarkably little signs of fatigue and there is no reason either to believe she is daunted by the intensity of opposition her controversial migration policy has been incurring. Nor does a growing amount of personal defamation seem to sap her determination.

To the contrary: When she addressed the assembled delegates of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) only days before Christmas, she delivered an uncharacteristically passionate plea in defence of her decision to suspend the Schengen Agreement and open the country’s borders to over a million refugees. Heiner Geißler, a party grandee and former cabinet minister, lauded her speech as the “best she had ever given”. Many journalists and close observers detect how Merkel finally committed to a cause that could define her chancellorship, while the phalanx of detractors take to the internet or the streets to whoop up speculation about her imminent resignation. Yet, far and wide there is no potential challenger among the ranks of the Christian Democrats.

However, against a background of growing public protest against Merkel’s migration policy and sliding poll ratings for her party, the question is perhaps not so much, if she is willed to go on. Instead, it will come down to the electorate if she is granted another term. And, though surprisingly perhaps, it appears there are solid reasons for an upbeat forecast that sees the CDU snatch a regional premiership or two in this year’s state ballots scheduled for March and anticipate Merkel’s fourth consecutive triumph in the 2017 general elections. While the party seems on course to lose a good number of seats in the Bundestag, another four years at the helm for Mrs. Merkel is still no unlikely prospect. The rationale underlying these sanguine predictions are predicated on basic principles of electoral arithmetic and political positioning which campaign managers of all parties in Berlin are keenly aware of.

The CDU’s strategists have always been striving for electoral outcomes that put their party well ahead in the race to ensure political rivals would not muster the numbers needed to form a coalition. Traditionally, Christian Democrats have trawled voters on the right and centre, while their main competitors, the Social Democrats (SPD), cater for voters leaning towards the left. Every government since the late 1940s coalesced around one or the other of these two major parties. Without the involvement of either, the minor political groupings lack electoral support to hammer out a parliamentary majority. Against this background the CDU’s primary objective becomes evident. Clinging on to government is assured only if the SPD’s numbers on election day are effectively kept down. Ever since Merkel took over government in 2005 this goal has been met. Indeed, for more than a decade now the Social Democrat’s poll ratings seem to be mired in the doldrums of the mid 20s, whilst the CDU’s electoral fortunes were boosted by rock solid support from well above 40 per cent of the voting age population. Hence after each of the elections in 2005, 2009 and 2013 there was no alternative to a coalition sustained by the CDU that confirmed Angela Merkel as chancellor, whose future in the job over the coming months hinges mainly on the continued weakness of her Social Democratic rivals.

Those who predict Merkel’s chancellorship may be truncated by a disenchanted electorate in next year’s general elections, are oblivious to the basic rules of political positioning and an evident ideological pincer movement the SPD finds itself squeezed by. It appears that the refugee crisis and CDU strategists’ response to it, sap the Social Democrats’ popular support and cause them more harm than the spiralling number of refugees and an exacerbated populace could possibly do to the CDU’s electoral prospects. The rationale for this prediction is grounded in a blend of party political ideology and modern history: Germany’s political left has traditionally entertained an uneasy relationship with notions of national identity and patriotic pride. Not surprisingly, the concept of the nation is viewed suspiciously and considered the potential source of nationalism which – it has been repeatedly argued by left wing intellectuals – is to be blamed for the pestilence that caught on with Germans and ended in an unhealthy frenzy that twice in a century led to world wars. The traumatic experience taught Germany’s ideological left two lessons that define their creed: Firstly, their country is morally obliged to redeem its historical guilt by offering unconditionally and without grimacing a home to anyone who is suffering from war and oppression – no if, no but and certainly no cap on numbers. Secondly, national sentiments and German patriotism need to be overcome. Last autumn the Green politician Stefanie von Berg, in a speech she delivered in Hamburg’s regional parliament, welcomed her country’s evolution into a “transcultural society” devoid of a single predominant ethnic group. “And that is good”, she succinctly concluded her remarks that encapsulated a widespread view held among the German left who believe that a wave of refugees will be instrumental in making strides towards attaining their goal and overcome a national identity that has never been a force for good.

Prior to the arrival of the Greens in the 1980s and Die Linke more recently, the Social Democrats for a century defined themselves as the traditional home to the left, whose stance on international solidarity and support for the victims of war and oppression should have aided the SPD’s electoral fortunes amid a wave of sympathy a majority of Germans publicly pronounced toward refugees as migrant numbers soared in 2015. But the hopes of party managers were soon dashed as the polls kept hovering in the low 20s, while Merkel’s open border policy hijacks the political left’s agenda and poaches their supporters.

The Social Democratic leaders and long-standing advocates of campaigns for a liberal refugee and migration policy noticed with chagrin that Merkel’s unswerving insistence to offer a “friendly face” to refugees in need of a safe haven, have propelled the CDU’s chancellor well onto ideological territory the SPD’s officials for decades thought of as their own. The implications were disconcerting for the SPD leadership: By the time the daily intake of refugees had peaked at 10.000, a poll by Forsa evidenced that a third of Social Democrats preferred Merkel over their own party leader. The ability to win over large swaths of voters who for years had been committed to one’s fiercest rivals is a rare talent the CDU’s leader has always been attested a knack for.

This feat is all the more astounding as the CDU’s leaders over many years had accrued a reputation for their views on migration and refugee policies which struck a more popular chord with the political right. In 1999 a bill introduced by the Social Democrat’s then chancellor Gerhard Schröder meant to entitle foreigners resident in Germany to double citizenship. The CDU’s response was a resolute campaign asking voters to sign a petition intended to derail the government’s initiative. In doing so Christian Democrats tacitly accepted support by many who merely sought to vent their resentment against foreigners. Helmut Kohl, who led the CDU and headed government for much of the 1980s and 1990s, had his party executive mull over plans aimed at expediting the return of Turks to their home country. At the same time, the CDU had earned particular credibility on matters related to law and order with pledges to ramp up funding for the judiciary and the police as well as promises for new and tightened legislation to counter crime. Today Christian Democrats preparing for regional elections in March hope to capitalise on these credentials which stand their party in good stead amid an increasingly nervous public discourse on the appropriate response to crimes allegedly committed by asylum seekers and migrants whose integration into civic society over years has been marred by failure. As the balance of popular sentiment incrementally tips in favour of restrictive policies, more eyes will turn to the CDU reminiscent of the party’s long held commitment to clamping down on offenders and staving off mass migration in an effort to balance legitimate national interests with the unquestioned humanitarian obligation to help refugees.

Opponents of mass migration today have an alternative to voting CDU. The aptly named Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, has positioned itself as a staunchly far-right outfit that is fishing both for disgruntled conservative voters and sympathisers of more extremist views. A combination of Merkel’s perceived liberal leanings and the fallout of the refugee crisis are regarded by senior AfD figures an electoral godsend. Indeed, the AfD has enjoyed bumper months and opinion polls see the party at around 12 per cent on an upward trend. Much of it to the detriment of the CDU, but reports suggest that trade union rank and file are not immune to the AfD’s lure either which indicates that voters from across the entire political range are susceptible to the far-right’s siren calls. As the party is undergoing an alarming radicalisation – only this weekend its deputy leader suggested border guards may have to shoot at refugees regardless of age or gender to prevent them from illegally crossing the border – chances for further growth appears slim as the vast majority of German voters have traditionally been little inclined to flock to parties ready to espouse extremist positions. What may also hold their rise is its unseemly association with the xenophobic Pegida movement that has made the AfD’s brand toxic and its leaders pariah, whose presence in TV talk shows and on debate panels is shunned by politicians across the board. Still, in a general election the AfD could well end up with 12 or perhaps even15 per cent of parliamentarians. If they are left out in the cold, the role of the largest party as lynchpin of any coalition government remains intact and is if anything even strengthened: While after the 2017 election the combined force of SPD, Green and Die Linke may outnumber a much clobbered group of Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, the tally will only add up if an alliance of left-wing parties outnumbers lawmakers of both the Christian Democrats and the AfD. Yet, as long as the former hold their ground, whilst the latter go from strength to strength this scenario seems somewhat unlikely, in which case a government would need to involve the only party whose numbers in a coalition with the SPD or the Greens can deliver a majority in the Bundestag. Factoring in current rather underwhelming poll ratings, it appears this party will still be Mrs. Merkel’s CDU.

Since demands have grown for a much more restrictive migration policy following the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, the Social Democrats find themselves confronted with public sentiments they are ideologically ill positioned to respond to with credibility. Not surprisingly, the Social Democrat’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, is said to feel daunted by the thought of leading his party into next year’s general election as the polls see the Christian Democrats at 35 per cent, seven points down since last summer, but still ahead by a wide margin. In spite of ever more vocal doomsayers we may therefore still witness the chancellor race to her fourth consecutive election victory in 2017, if the CDU’s strategists play their cards well and emphasise their party’s credibility in response both to a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale and the more alarming domestic fallout of mass migration. The recipe of success will be a political pincer movement: Whilst Angela Merkel continues to champion the cause of migrants, left wing voters can’t help but admire her tenacity and readiness to face down a barrage of narrow-minded criticism. Yet, if refugees are to feature more prominently in Germany’s crime statistics, worried voters may arguably favour the CDU over its Social Democratic rivals, whose credentials for law and order and wholesale expulsion of foreign delinquents are less impressive. It appears electoral arithmetic and the astute positioning of the party brand are the recipe to keep the CDU in government and Merkel in the job well beyond next elections in 2017.

Read more in this debate: Simone Duarte.


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