German state elections: polarised politics of immigration and Islam

21 March 2016

Elections in three of Germany’s 16 federal states on March 13 have given rise to a polarised political scene. In all three electoral campaigns, issues of migration took centre stage, trumping more local and regional themes. The right-wing and anti-Islam Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party made large-scale gains in all states, above all in eastern Saxony-Anhalt, where it achieved 24.2 per cent of the vote and thus emerged as the second-strongest force in the state’s parliament and the future leader of the opposition. Due to the splintering of the popular vote among five or six parties, the formation of coalition governments promises to be challenging.

The international press was quick to describe the elections results as a defeat for Angela Merkel and her ‘open door’ policy of the past six months. The New York Times opined that Germans were wary of migrants and of Muslims, especially after the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. The Times thus viewed the Chancellor as increasingly isolated at home.

The domestic German reaction to the elections results were, however, markedly different. While a number of commentators saw the results as harming Merkel, the more widespread narrative has been that the Chancellor is among the winners of the elections. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) indeed had to concede defeat in Baden-Württemberg – a CDU-stronghold for all of post-WWII history – now governed by a Green prime minister; and in Rhineland-Palatinate the CDU’s rising star, Julia Klöckner, widely dubbed at least prior to the election to be Merkel’s potential successor, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the ruling Social Democrats.

Yet throughout their election campaigns, Klöckner and the CDU candidate for prime ministership in Baden-Württemberg, Guido Wolf, had sought to distance themselves from Merkel’s immigration policies. Especially Klöckner had more or less openly endorsed some of the positions of Horst Seehofer, Bavarian prime minister and Merkel’s fiercest inner-party critic from the right. In contrast to that, the Social Democratic and Green winners of the elections had been extremely outspoken in her support for Merkel, with the Green candidate Winfried Kretschmann going so far as asserting publicly that he prayed for the Chancellor every day. Against this backdrop, many commentators, such as Jakob Augstein in Der Spiegel have asserted that while the CDU lost, Angela Merkel won the elections because her detractors suffered severe blows. Yet Merkel’s win was seen as coming at the cost of potentially permanently establishing a populist party to the right of the CDU.


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