15 March 2016

This article was first published as on op-ed for The Telegraph on 14 March 2016.

Europe rarely speaks with one voice, but [on Monday] headlines across the continent were unanimous in declaring that Chancellor Angela Merkel had been punished by voters for her policy of welcoming refugees. “A slap for Merkel, fear of refugees gives the right a lift off” claimed Italy’s centre-Left la Repubblica. Spain’s El País said that “Merkel suffers a tough punishment for the refugee crisis”.

However, this narrative appears less convincing under scrutiny. For a start, despite being closely associated with Merkel herself, Germany’s refugee policy is rooted in the country’s political culture and enjoys wide support across the political spectrum. It is hard to argue that wins for the SPD in Rheinland-Pfalz and the Greens in Baden-Württemberg are evidence of voters embracing anti-refugee/migration sentiments. In fact, the incumbent Presidents of those states – Malu Dreyer and Winfried Kretschmann – were more supportive of Merkel’s stance than the CDU lead candidates in these elections – Julia Klöckner and Guido Wolf – both of whom called on Merkel to place a greater emphasis on border control. An exit poll in Baden-Württemberg found 76 per cent of voters thought it good that Kretschmann had supported Merkel’s stance.

This is not to deny that AfD had a good night – the party exceeded pre-election polling by finishing second in Saxony-Anhalt with almost one-quarter of the vote, and third in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. The refugee and migration crisis was clearly a huge factor in its success. In Baden-Württemberg for example, some 190,000 voters switched directly from the CDU to AfD, with 75 per cent of them citing refugees as a reason for doing so. The party did particularly well in energising non-voters, who provided its single largest source of votes, and even comments from senior party figures suggesting that police should be allowed to shoot refugees failed to derail its campaign.

However, the crisis has completely dominated Germany’s political, social, economic and cultural debate since last summer, and according to a recent poll, 59 per cent of Germans are very or somewhat unhappy with Merkel’s response. As the only semi-mainstream party (i.e. aside from the neo-Nazi NPD) campaigning on a promise of changing course against a broadly united establishment, the AfD’s surge is not that surprising. Indeed in this context, its results are not quite as impressive as at first glance, and it is hard to argue the regional elections were a de-facto referendum on migration.

Still, last night marks yet another step towards the party’s permanent establishment on the German political scene – it is now very hard to see them failing to clear the 5 per cent threshold necessary to win seats in the Bundestag next year. Originally founded by economic professors angry at the eurozone bailouts, AfD has moved in the direction of a classical populist/nationalist party along the lines of the French National Front and the Freedom Party in Austria

With German society changing as a result of both legal economic migration and the refugee crisis, AfD has tapped into concerns about this process, concerns which are only likely to intensify in the wake of incidents such as those in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. As with other parties occupying similar political space, AfD is also characterised by opposition to free trade (in particular TTIP, the EU-US free trade agreement) and the EU’s imposition of sanctions on Russia.

The main consequence of AfD’s rise is likely to be the fracturing and polarisation of German politics and society along the lines we are seeing in many other developed countries. AfD did well in all three German Länder where elections took place, but the fact that it achieved its best result by some margin in an Eastern German state suggests the East-West divide could be exacerbated in future. Furthermore, with the party strictly off limits when it comes to coalition building, its rise could mean that, for the foreseeable future, neither the CDU nor SPD will be able to govern with their preferred partners, the FDP and the Greens respectively. This in turn is likely to make grand coalitions the new norm in German politics, thereby ironically opening further space to insurgent parties like AfD and Die Linke who will seek to claim the mantle of the “real” opposition.