Merkel Faces Triple Challenge as Refugees Impact State Votes

  • Baden-Wuerttemberg is biggest prize in elections on Sunday
  • Election outcome could cause concern `well beyond Germany'

Voters in three German states go to the polls Sunday in the first major electoral test of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border refugee policy.

More than a fifth of the German population lives in the regions at stake, making the contest the biggest of Merkel’s third term and the most significant vote before the next federal ballot in 18 months. Voting stations opened at 8 a.m. and will close at 6 p.m., when exit polls will be released. Turnout as of midday was higher than the last elections five years ago, according to the electoral authorities.

A voter casts his ballot in Rhineland-Palatinate state elections on March 13.

Photographer: Simon Hofmann/Getty Images

While voters are casting their ballots for regional assemblies, surveys show the biggest public concern to be Europe’s refugee crisis and its impact on Germany. The arrival of about 1 million asylum seekers in Germany last year alone has hurt support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union nationally and threatens to upend the election outcome in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.

“Merkel faces the most serious challenge of her chancellorship in the migrant crisis” and a major setback for her party Sunday would “trigger some unsettling headlines and possibly even speculation that her position may be at risk,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. “That could cause concerns well beyond Germany.”

The refugee issue is reverberating around the European Union, replacing the euro-area’s debt woes as the most significant in a series of crises chipping away at the EU’s political and economic cohesion. Bitter disagreements between capitals are stoking fears that border-free travel and commerce -- one of the EU’s signature achievements along with the single currency -- will be suspended. An associated rise in populism is eroding support for established parties across the bloc, making coalition-building increasingly difficult from Spain to Ireland.

Sunday’s state elections are likely to show that Germany is no longer immune to the allure of right-wing populism, with polls suggesting a surge in support for the anti-immigration AfD party in all three regions.

During the closing rally of the campaign Saturday in Haigerloch, Baden-Wuerttermberg, Merkel cited a “gratifying” drop in the number of refugees entering Germany. She told a crowd in the southern German town that “we still need to ask ourselves how we’ll confront this challenge,” and reiterated her plan to seek a “sustained” reduction in the number of migrants.

The chancellor also defended her efforts to secure a deal with Turkey to stanch migration to Europe. With EU leaders due in Brussels on Thursday for their second meeting in two weeks on the accord, Merkel said that the total of 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) requested by the government in Ankara is worth the price to help prevent refugees from making the dangerous crossing over the Aegean to Greece.

Biggest Prize

Merkel’s problem is that as recently as last fall polls suggested the CDU had a lock on all three states, but the refugee crisis and its impact on Germany has since thrown the election results into doubt.

The biggest prize on offer is Baden-Wuerttemberg, a state of 10.7 million on the Swiss border with an economy bigger than Poland’s. It’s been led by Germany’s first Green state premier since 2011, and the CDU is vying to recapture what was prior to that a heartland for more than half a century.

Rhineland-Palatinate, known for its wine terraces along the Rhine river as well as BASF SE’s chemicals, may see Merkel’s party hold on to take the state from the Social Democrats, who have governed it for 25 years. In Saxony-Anhalt, in the ex-communist east, CDU premier Reiner Haseloff is within reach of another five years atop a state coalition with the Social Democrats, although support for the AfD of as much as 18 percent may derail that alliance.

“Major losses on Sunday would add to the unease within her own party,” said Berenberg’s Schmieding. “If Merkel’s approach to reduce the inflow of migrants, namely to strike a deal with Turkey, were to falter at the EU summit on March 17-18, she could be under serious pressure from within her own party.”

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