- Populist party gets “golden opportunity” to steal voters
- Opponents call for tougher actions to protect German borders
Chancellor Angela Merkel faced renewed criticism of her handling of the refugee crisis in the wake of four attacks in Germany in the span of a week that have unsettled the public.
Lawmakers from her governing coalition, as well as politicians from parties on the political fringe, argued the assaults show her refugee policies aren’t working and have made the country less safe, breaking with the relative unity shown by the political and media establishment in the immediate aftermath. They pushed for speedy government action to step up security.
"The refugee debate will take on a new dimension because of these recent attacks,” Mark Hauptmann, a lawmaker from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview. “If you look at the suspects, you will see that most of them radicalized themselves over the past two years. Now just imagine what will happen with those 1.3 million refugees who entered Germany last year. This will not end well."
Merkel, trying to get ahead of any public backlash and limit potential political fallout, moved forward her annual summer press conference to Thursday to address the government’s response to the incidents -- a shooting spree, ax attack, suicide bombing and machete assault. Three of the four attacks, which left a dozen people dead, involved refugees. None of them had arrived in the most recent wave over the last year.
The most likely political beneficiary is the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which already was nabbing supporters from the CDU concerned about public safety. The first real political test will come in September. That’s when Merkel’s home state holds elections in what could prove politically embarrassing for the chancellor. The AfD was already polling at 19 percent in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern prior to the assaults, while the CDU was at 25 percent.
"The task for Merkel is to continue to do what she’s doing, which has been to keep toward the political center. She has to present herself as almost a presidential leader," said Carsten Nickel, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence in London, adding that the attacks offer the AfD “a golden opportunity.”
Germany has largely avoided large-scale terrorist attacks on its soil, in contrast with the assaults that killed hundreds in France in the last 1 1/2 years and an attack in the Belgian capital earlier this year. The assaults -- the most recent one in France came Tuesday when attackers murdered a priest near Rouen -- have boosted support for populist parties across the region, including the anti-EU National Front in France. On the other side of the English Channel, the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union was in part due to worries over immigration.
“Given the mounting, extremely serious incidents, the AfD calls on the government to urgently fulfill its duty and at least stabilize the security situation in Germany through effective border controls,” the party’s leadership said in a statement. “Other steps such as the immediate and consistent deportation of offenders must necessarily follow.”
Merkel’s chief antagonist during the height of the refugee influx, Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, on Tuesday avoided direct criticism of the chancellor. Three of the four attacks happened in his state.
“We won’t achieve internal peace in this country with a commitment to peacefulness alone,” Seehofer told reporters on Tuesday. “People are upset, people are scared, and that’s completely understandable. You need a robust response by policy makers, not an endless debate.”
A commentary in Bayernkurier, a publication run by Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, was more direct in its criticism of the chancellor: “Not only has Angela Merkel with her politics offered a stimulus package for right-wing populists, it’s also abundantly clear the security risks that the chancellor has created with her open borders and arms.”
Some members of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, called for faster deportations of those whose asylum application had been rejected, as was the case with one of the attackers, and also for closer scrutiny of refugees who arrived without proper identification. Bavaria has been the main entry point into Germany for asylum seekers.
"I’ve never been under the illusion that the many people who come to us are leaving their traumas and their conflicts behind in their countries,” said Florian Hahn, a CSU lawmaker. “This is something a government has to deal with and given the large numbers, I don’t think that’s possible. We as the CSU are concerned that political parties at the edge of the spectrum will benefit from these events if we don’t have this debate.”
Merkel, who usually spends her summer break visiting the Wagner opera festival in Bayreuth and afterward goes hiking in the Alps, for the time being is in the countryside near Berlin. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere -- who announced plans Monday to boost the federal police presence at airports, train stations and other public places -- defended Merkel’s refugee policy, saying the vast majority of asylum seekers posed no danger.
“In general, there is a high degree of support in the lower house and in the media, especially in the leading media, whereas there are many critical voices in the public at large,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a CDU lawmaker who was chairman of parliament’s interior affairs committee until last year. “Critics in parliament have held back in recent months because they didn’t want to be painted into a xenophobic corner.”