Merkel faces strong challenge from German nationalist party

The AfD party, heading into regional elections this weekend, is now on the rise.

Fredrik von Erichsen/Pool Photo via AP/File
German Chancellor and chairwoman of the Christian Democrats, CDU, Angela Merkel, left, CDU's top candidate for the regional elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg Guido Wolf and top candidate of the regional CDU in Rhineland-Palatinate Julia Kloeckner attend the CDU conference in Mainz, Germany. The rising nationalist party Alternative fuer Deutschland, AfD, (Alternative for Germany) is expected to ride unease about Merkel’s migrant policy to perform strongly in three German state elections this weekend, the first significant political test since last year’s massive influx of people seeking safety and a better life.

Germany is set to hold regional elections in three major states Sunday, and many say they will be a key test for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

Three German states will head to the polls on Sunday: Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland Palatinate in southwestern Germany, and Saxony Anhalt in the former East Germany, where Ms. Merkel faces strong opposition from the three-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Bolstered by anti-immigration sentiments, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has increasingly gained popularity, and is now “polling at double digits in all three states – a historic achievement for a party that was only founded three years ago and looked close to collapse when its founder left last July, according to the Guardian.

In January, the leader of the party was quoted saying that migrants entering illegally should, if necessary, be shot, according to Reuters.

Merkel's staunch support for refugees has cost her party support, especially in Baden-Württemberg, a former stronghold of support, as AfD support surges in the region. “Her course on the refugee crisis is the right one for the world, but it’s the wrong one for her party here in Baden-Württemberg,” Hans-Günther Knaupp, a lawyer attending the CDU rally told The Guardian.

Some have even speculated that a poor showing at the polls, combined with a skeptical reaction to Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis could lead the CDU to oust her as leader, The Guardian reports.

“Many people around the country are unhappy and may think now is the time to teach the government a lesson,” said Merkel as the Guardian reported. “But this is about you and your choices.”

Yet a disappointing result isn't necessarily a major blow to the chancellor, some analysts say.

“Chancellor Merkel is protected by the absence of credible alternative figures and the weakness of the [Social Democratic Party, the historical rival of Merkel's CDU]” William Paterson, professor of German and European Politics at Aston University, tells the Christian Science Monitor.

“The AfD is an irritation more than a threat at present,” he says.

“Though she’s grappling with the biggest challenge in a decade as chancellor, no obvious successor is in sight and party rebels who oppose her refugee policy lack a coup leader,” writes Patrick Donahue, a political correspondent for Bloomberg News

The AfD – formed in 2013 amid the Greek debt crisis that destabilized the European economy – was intended to challenge the German-backed Greek bailouts, but it has “morphed in the years since, finding a new reason for being as more than 1 million migrants arrived in Germany last year,” according to The Washington Post.

The refugee crisis has continued to polarize Germany and Europe, with Merkel facing criticism from several European countries and German lawmakers including her own Christian Democratic Union party, and the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party.

But Merkel has been resilient, resisting pressure to cap the number of migrants seeking asylum in Germany. While several Balkan countries have closed their borders, blocking refugees, Merkel and other European officials are finalizing on a deal with Turkey, aimed at easing the crisis.

Would an election upset change Merkel’s stance on the migrant crisis?

“She is not likely to change her stance. Her energies will be centered on the deal with Turkey.” That could change however, if the refugee crisis “worsens and we have a renewed Eurozone crisis,” Professor Paterson says.

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