Monday, 5 September 2016

Merkel's far-right home state

The German chancellor has suffered an embarrassing electoral defeat as the dark cloud of nationalism spreads over Europe. But predictions of her political demise are premature.

Last month, I took a trip with some friends to the Northwest German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. It's a beautiful holiday island full of white chalk cliffs and rolling green hills. But when we were there, it was also full of sights of a more disconcerting variety - political ads for the far-right and racist messages splattered in graffiti. 

As we left Berlin on the train and travelled north through Mecklenburg-Pomerania, signs for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the extreme-right (neo-Nazi) National Democratic Party (NPD) became more and more frequent. They were all over the island, and were an especially frequent site in the island's departure city, Stralsund. On the posters for the main centrist German parties, Angela Merkel's center-right CDU and the center-left SPD (who are currently governing the country in a coalition), was written a chillingly familiar word in graffiti: volksverräter (traitor to the nation).

The only ads not splattered with grafitti were those for the AfD and NPD, some of which called Germany's new arrivals "rapefugees".

This is Chancellor Merkel's home turf - the constituency which she represents in the German parliament. And like parts of neighbouring Poland, it is not a friendly place for people of color.

The signs were up because Mecklenburg-Pomerania was about to have its election for the state government. That election took place yesterday, and the result delivered Merkel's worst fear. Her CDU lost to the AfD, polling third at 19% compared to the AfD's 21%. The centre-left SPD came first with 30%.

The result has no direct implications for Merkel or the German government - it was a state election rather than a federal one. But given that the messages of the campaign were almost entirely focused on Merkel's 'asylpolitic' policy of taking in Syrian refugees, it has indirect implications for Germany's federal election next year.

East Germany's white rage

That the far-right scored so highly is not a huge surprise. This is, after all, former East Germany. The far-left and far-right have tended to do well amidst the economic upheaval and high unemployment here since the transition from Communism to Capitalism. What is more surprising is that the centre-left SPD was able to siphon off so many votes from the far-left Die Linke, which scored 12.5%.

Leftist, racially diverse Berlin sits within an island of East German homogeneity. This is the home of the virulently racist Pegida movement, which has found receptive ears in the Saxonian cities of Dresden and Leipzig. This is the reason many people of immigrant background in Berlin do not like to leave this city's borders.

Like the rest of the former Warsaw Pact areas, East Germany is still an almost entirely white area where people of a different skin tone are greeted with at best curiosity, at worst hostility. It's a legacy of the brutal forced resettlement, national homogenisation and closed-door policies of the Communist governments. And so, any national extrapolations from yesterdays result in the East should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Still, Germans across the country are growing increasingly nervous and impatient with Merkel's policy of granting asylum to all Syrian refugees. The asylum centers set up in East Germany have certainly been the victims of the most hostility and sometimes violent attacks, which have included arson (it is the part of Germany refugees are desperate not to be resettled in, also because of the lack of jobs). 

But refugees in the West have also been on the receiving end of a sometimes violent welcome. The recent string of four attacks in Southern Germany, three of which involved refugees, have set the entire country somewhat on edge.

Yes, Mecklenburg-Pomerania is fertile ground for the far-right. But what will be worrying Merkel today is that the AfD was only set up three years ago, and already has seats in nine of Germany's 16 state parliaments. Whereas previous attempts to attract Germans to the far-right have failed, the rise of the AfD has been meteoric.

Down but not out

Suffering such a defeat in her home state is certainly humiliating for Merkel, but the political danger she now finds herself in is being grossly overstated in some quarters.

I've just returned to Berlin today after two weeks in the US, and I saw over and over again American pundits saying that Merkel's welcoming asylum policy has destroyed her political career. Donald Trump even briefly tried to tarnish Hillary Clinton with the German chancellor's supposed unpopularity by branding his opponent, "America's Merkel"

He dropped it after quickly realising most Americans have no idea who Angela Merkel is.

The comparison also seems quite daft considering that Merkel still has favorability ratings that both Trump and Clinton would kill for. Her rating fell to 45% after the summer's terrorist attacks, a five-year low. But new polls already indicate this was likely a momentary blip (and due in no small part to her absence during the attacks). Before the attacks her approval rating stood at 75%, despite German nervousness about her asylum policy which is now in its second year.

The other thing that has to be kept in mind is that while the German federal election is only months away, Merkel still has no serious challenger. The opposition/ally SPD is still in a weak position and the upstart AfD probably doesn't have enough strength to do significant damage to the CDU federally due to the vagaries of Germany's electoral system.

A dark cloud over Europe

Despite the likelihood that Merkel will remain Germany's chancellor next year, the AfD's success is a worrying sign for Europe as a whole. It comes at a time when nationalist movements are gaining strength across the continent, from Brexit Britain in the West to Orbanistan in the East.

The other major European election next year looks far less certain for the incumbent. French President Francois Hollande is deeply unpopular at the moment and some polls predict that the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, from the historically anti-semitic National Front, could win the election. 

Meanwhile Poland and Hungary have already been taken over by nationalist, autocratic movements that are gutting the two countries' judicial and media freedom. Nationalist parties like the Danish Peoples Party, True Finns and Sweden Democrats are gaining strength in the North, while Austria may elect its first far-right president in a few months.

The uncertainty created by the euro crisis and the refugee crisis has driven Europeans to extremes. At the same time, there is little in the way of moral leadership in the West for these countries to look to for guidance. The success of Donald Trump in America has shown that the rise of far-right populism is now a phenomenon throughout the Western world.

The success of the AfD in this oft-forgotten corner of Germany may not spell the end of Angela Merkel. But seen in the context of developments across Europe, it is a worrying sign of things to come.

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