German elections: Polls indicate Merkel’s open door to refugees worked politically
By allowing more than a million Syrian and other refugees into Germany in 2015, Merkel not only won brownie points among liberals at large, but also cornered her main political opponent, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), on an issue that dominated the headlines for a very long time.analysis Updated: Sep 22, 2017 17:05 IST
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s politically bold refugee policy in 2015 appears to be paying off two years on. If the opinion polls are right, Merkel is heading for a fourth term in office after Germany’s federal elections next Sunday. My take is that, if she does win, it won’t be despite that risky refugee policy but rather—in part—because of it.
Many analysts had predicted that her open-door policy for refugees for a few months from the late summer of 2015 could cause a backlash by the time elections were held. This view was strengthened after the sexual abuse that occurred in Koln and other cities during street celebrations at the end of that year.
However, Merkel’s move was actually a bold and calculated move on the chess board of national politics. She is an uncommonly insightful and shrewd politician with a firm grip on the political steering wheel.
By allowing more than a million Syrian and other refugees into Germany in 2015, Merkel not only won brownie points among liberals at large, but also cornered her main political opponent, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), on an issue that dominated the headlines for a very long time.
The SDP’s political manoeuvrability was already squeezed since it was a coalition partner of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Given its long-established Left-liberal positions, the SDP would surely have asked for openness to refugees, and criticised her if she had shut the door. But by announcing the open-door policy, and taking responsibility and credit, she left the SDP no option but to back her — and lose marginal voters to her.
Merkel’s real gamble was not with regard to her party’s traditional opponent but the xenophobic party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained ground over the past few years. The open-door refugee policy handed the AfD a major issue to oppose her, which it used with great gusto. Yet, if recent opinion polls are right, Merkel’s bet has paid off. The AfD has apparently not gained enough ground to be a real contender for power.
Polls say that the AfD has not even become Merkel’s chief challenger. The SDP remains the number two party. In fact, some polls say the Green Party or the Liberal Party could still emerge as the third largest in the new house, rather than the AfD.
This would be a contrast to France, where National Front leader Marine Le Pen came close to winning the presidential elections in May. Similar ultra-right parties have performed strongly in countries like Hungary and Poland, even Holland, and xenophobic sentiment led to the success of the June 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum for the UK to leave the EU.
Merkel’s bet essentially boiled down to the legacy of the Holocaust. The majority of Germans still have a horror and deep sense of shame about what happened under Hitler’s genocidal National Socialist party from 1933 to 1945. In fact, many Germans refer to AfD supporters as neo-Nazis.
Of course, Merkel’s bet would have hinged on a more basic bet: the continued bouyancy of the German economy. The open-door refugee policy could only work as long as economic sentiments remained strong. As things stand, Germany’s is one of the very few confidently buoyant economies in a general global scenario of gloom and doom.
Her deft foreign policy has also won approval. She has moved closer to Russia since Donald Trump won the US elections, but kept the NATO alliance in place. And she is strengthening the European Union, of which Germany is the strongest bulwark.
If Merkel did bet that Germany’s post-Nazi dread of racist xenophobia would prevent AfD from overwhelming her centrism, she must also have astutely realised that the trend of the times would not favour the traditional socialist party, the SDP.
The 1970s was the time of socialism in the West. The SDP’s legendary Willy Brandt was German chancellor from 1969 to 1975. Some left-of-centre parties reinvented themselves as broadly centrist under leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s.
However, Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US elections last November indicates that even centrist politics are hard pressed now. France’s socialist party came to the presidential elections as the incumbent, but got just six per cent of the popular vote earlier this year. The debacle prompted BBC News to ask in a headline: “Is France’s Socialist Party dead?”
If Germany’s pollsters are right, this wider context – losing Left and hardening right – would make Merkel’s success, after she let in a million-plus refugees, extraordinarily remarkable.
David Devadas is a geopolitics expert
The views expressed are personal