Merkel Threat Lurks in Black Forest as Refugees Sway Voters

  • State election defeats would add to German chancellor's woes
  • Greens in Daimler's Baden-Wuerttemberg region lead in polls

As Angela Merkel grapples with a refugee crisis that sprawls from Afghanistan to Greece, voters in Germany’s promised land are about to deliver their verdict.

Having made her case for open borders in Europe, the German chancellor faces the first real electoral test of her stance Sunday when three states go to the polls. The biggest prize is Baden-Wuerttemberg, a region that’s like an advertisement for Germany, boasting the country’s lowest unemployment, fine wines, the fabled Black Forest and Porsche HQ.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Also home to Mercedes maker Daimler AG and business-software giant SAP AG, Baden-Wuerttemberg was natural territory for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union until a shock victory for the Greens five years ago following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This year, the contest has been upended by the refugee influx that’s undermined CDU support and boosted the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD.

Trust in the CDU “has really evaporated on the ground,” said Carsten Nickel, an analyst at consultancy Teneo Intelligence. “There’s a lot of infighting. We expect Merkel to come under more pressure after these regional state elections.”

Polls suggest the CDU, led locally by Guido Wolf, will fail to recapture the state and struggle to avoid losses in the other regions voting: neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in the ex-communist east of the country. Together, the three states represent about one fifth of Germany’s electorate.

Already faced with the biggest crisis of her decade in power, Merkel has seen her party’s poll lead in Baden-Wuerttemberg overturned since the start of the year. A second consecutive defeat in the state coupled with a strong showing for the AfD in all three votes would increase pressure on the chancellor to change her course for the sake of the country. It would certainly embolden party members and lawmakers who are defying Merkel and demanding a cap on refugee arrivals that numbered more than a million last year -- 13 percent of them parceled out to the state of 10.7 million people.

Baden-Wuerttemberg was run by the CDU for 58 years until 2011. Just as the last election was a proxy ballot on Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power, voters now face a choice between reverting to their old ways or sticking with Winfried Kretschmann, Germany’s first state leader from the Greens party.

Polls show that Kretschmann is more popular among CDU supporters than Merkel’s own candidate as he presides over a region with 4 percent unemployment. Merkel winds up her party’s campaign on Saturday in the town of Haigerloch, an hour’s drive southwest of Stuttgart, the state capital.

Zetsche on Borders

The chancellor has stood her ground on refugees, spending much of the past month of the campaign hammering away at her argument that Germany needs the European Union’s passport-free travel and commerce zone known as the Schengen area. That’s not lost on business leaders such as Daimler Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche, whose company depends on meshing manufacturing processes spread across Europe.

“The most important thing to remember is the human cost of the way we deal with our borders, but there are economic challenges that result from this, too,” he said last week in Switzerland, across the border from Daimler’s home state.

Zetsche praised cooperation with the Greens, citing the construction of a Daimler car-testing track in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Kretschmann attended the start of construction last year and at the event received a hybrid-drive Mercedes for his official fleet, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported at the time.

On the campaign trail, Merkel is criticizing countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans for closing their borders to ward off refugees. “I’ve always said that this is not the solution for the problem as a whole,” she told a rally in the western town of Bad Neuenahr late Wednesday.

Weathering Storms

Voter support for the Greens in the region was 32 percent in a Forsa poll published Wednesday that showed the CDU at 27 percent and the Social Democrats, the Greens’ junior coalition partner, at 16 percent. Before the refugee crisis burst into the open in Germany last summer, Merkel’s party was polling at more than 40 percent, some 15 percentage points ahead of the Greens.

Merkel acknowledged her bloc’s infighting at a state CDU conference on March 4, where she exhorted party supporters to vote CDU despite differences over the migration crisis, and said she can stand the heat.

“I’ve weathered all kinds of storms,” Merkel told the crowd in the town of Ettlingen.

Kretschmann has praised Merkel’s accommodating stance on refugees, contrasting himself the CDU candidate Wolf, who broke ranks with the chancellor last month by backing a demand to restrict the influx of migrants.

Merkel, meanwhile, is criticizing countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans for closing their borders to ward off refugees. “I’ve always said that this is not the solution for the problem as a whole,” she told a campaign rally late Wednesday.

Lars Feld, a member of the German government’s council of economic advisers whose Walter Eucken Institute is based in the Baden-Wuerttemberg, said that regardless of any national ramifications from the election result, the Greens have proven they can run one of Germany’s biggest regional economies.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg, “the CDU’s loss of power has always been sold as a political accident,” Feld said in an interview. “The irony is that the Greens have a very popular and very conservative state prime minister.”

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