Merkel Facing Loss to Anti-Immigration Party in Home State Voteby
Voters in Baltic coast state head to polls for Sunday election
Merkel’s CDU running neck-and-neck with AfD party in surveys
With resistance building to Angela Merkel’s beleaguered refugee policy, voters go to the polls in Germany’s Baltic coast state on Sunday in a contest that could result in the chancellor’s party losing to an upstart on the far right.
Home to Merkel’s electoral district, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the former communist east is the latest battleground between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. The first results of the election for state parliament will be released at 6 p.m. local time.
Polls show the AfD may take more than a fifth of the vote in the state of 1.6 million, buoyed by its calls to halt migration into Germany, secure the country’s borders and deport asylum seekers who commit crimes or who have entered illegally. The party is running neck-and-neck with Merkel’s CDU, surveys show.
“An AfD victory over the CDU would result in a huge propaganda hoopla,” Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University, said in a phone interview. While Merkel’s job wouldn’t be on the line, a big win would mean a “transformation of the political landscape” as the CDU competes with a party to the right, he said.
Merkel has lobbied hard in the state with a get-out-the-vote effort, worried that a low turnout could boost the AfD at the cost of traditional parties, including her CDU and the Social Democrats, who currently run the state. A poll on Thursday showed the CDU tied with the AfD at 22 percent, while the Social Democrats led with 28 percent.
“I want to encourage people to go to the polls and cast a vote for parties who want to have solutions to problems -- and for me, that doesn’t include the AfD,” Merkel told broadcaster RTL on Friday.
A mostly rural and thinly populated region dotted with lakes bordering Poland, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has one of the highest unemployment rates of Germany’s 16 states. Its residents have a list of grievances against Merkel, including joblessness, the refugee crisis, a loss of trade with Russia and an energy overhaul that the AfD says has left the landscape excessively dotted with wind turbines.
The AfD has a recent history of performing better than it polls. In another eastern state in March, Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD took 24 percent of the vote after consistently polling below 20 percent before that state’s election.
The AfD has targeted Merkel since its inception in 2013, when it formed as an anti-euro party protesting bailouts to the south and the dysfunction of the single currency. As the country has grappled with its worst refugee crisis since World War II over the last year, anxieties over the influx and anger at the government have driven voters into the arms of the hard-right-leaning AfD.
The party has used bristling rhetoric to lambaste the government. Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in the state of Brandenburg, this week called Merkel’s decision a year ago to allow in thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary “madness.”
“To me this is a dictatorial decision that bypassed the rule of law,” Gauland told reporters from the foreign press club in Berlin on Tuesday.
An outright victory by the populists could play into the hands of Merkel’s internal critics, who have blamed her for compounding the influx of refugees into the country last year with her open-door stance. In the end, about one million came to Germany in 2015.
The chancellor has countered the AfD’s message in the state as she’s campaigned this summer. Her speeches have adopted a law-and-order tone, calling for a larger police force and more video surveillance.
The chancellor has stood by her refugee policy, however, defending her famous catch phrase from last year that “we can do this.”
Nationally, Merkel’s CDU-led bloc has consistently topped the polls, with the AfD at more than 10 percent. A year out from the federal election, Merkel hasn’t yet said whether she’ll seek a fourth term.