Merkel’s stress tests in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin

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Awkward family photo in front of the state parliament. Not the worst office! (Photo: AfD Mecklenburg Vorpommern)

On September 4 the north eastern state Mecklenburg Vorpommern (MV) - Angela Merkel’s home state - elected a new state parliament. As many predicted the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came second - winning more seats than Merkel’s CDU. Many national and international papers saw it as a stress test of the federal government’s refugee policy. Spiegel Online declared it the “Merkel election”. The Financial Times said it was a “humiliating election defeat on home turf”. Bild Zeitung asked “How many more electoral disasters can Merkel take?”.

by the Know Nothing Enquirer   15/09/2016

Indeed, federal politics dominated the elections, despite the low numbers of refugee in the state and CDU candidate Lorenz Caffier’s efforts to distance himself from the federal government’s refugee policy. The two governing parties of the grand coalition, just as at the federal level, both lost seats in parliament. The percentage falls, however, do not translate into less votes. The SPD actually won 4,000 more votes compared to the 2011 elections. The CDU only lost 3,000 votes. So how did the AfD manage to win the 167,800 votes? 80% of NPD voters chose the more moderate AfD. Voter turnout increased by over 10%. Nearly half of those who did not vote in 2011 put their cross next to the AfD this time. And yes, frustrated voters from all parties - including The Left, SPD and the Green Party - turned to the AfD.

 

Was this really a humiliating defeat? And most importantly: how representative is the MV state election? Unfortunately there are no straightforward answers. Even though the refugee crisis dominated political discussions in the state, only 24% thought it was the most important issue. Unemployment and the bad state of infrastructure were seen as the most important issues - except with AfD voters. They mostly mobilised around the “asylum chaos” (one of the AfD’s political buzzwords) topic. A more detailed look at the figures reveals that the CDU didn’t actually lose that many votes to the AfD and managed to keep their absolute number of votes constant. Furthermore the SPD has been the traditionally stronger party since 1994 (the second democratic state election after reunification). In other words the AfD mainly become the second strongest party in parliament through the votes on the far right (estimated around 12% in the whole of Germany and probably higher in MV) and dissatisfied former non-voters. So yes, the result was humiliating because the established parties did not manage to mobilise dissatisfied voters with rational arguments. Nevertheless keeping in mind that the two “Volksparteien” did not actually lose significant amounts of voters, speaking of a humiliating defeat for Merkel is rather far fetched. The election did, however, see two humiliated losers. Both the Greens, who did not manage manage to meet the 5% threshold, and the Left party lost around 20,000 voters.

 

Similar to the last election in Sachsen-Anhalt, also a state in former East Germany, the AfD profited from MV’s largely rural and structurally disadvantaged population. Or to answer the second question: it is not at all representative for the entire country. In 2011, nearly 50% more people voted for the neo-Nazi NPD than for the Liberal Democrats - or 6% in total. It has witnessed massive anti-refugee marches (e.g. in Rostock Lichtenhagen) in the early 1990s. In some parts of rural MV the NPD has established itself as a mainstream party.

 

Within the state there are also large regional discrepancies. Mecklenburg, the western part of the state, is generally more affluent due to its proximity to Hamburg. Vorpommern, on the other hand, is the poorest region in Germany and has seen a dramatic population decrease since reunification. Unemployment is high and opportunities for young people are almost non-existent. The AfD was especially successful in the more disadvantaged constituencies. The AfD’s 20.8% should therefore not merely be seen as a response to the federal government’s handling of the refugee crisis. Rather it has acted as a trigger to bring deeply dissatisfied voters back to the democratic process - disappointed that the benefits of reunification and globalisation seemingly stopped in Hamburg and Berlin and wouldn’t go beyond. It is a vote against the establishment and everything it stands for - including multiculturalism and immigration. And shows a longing for the perceived good old days (“Ostalgie”) in former East Germany, despite all its shortcomings.

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Constituency results in the state. SPD = red. CDU = black. AfD = blue. (Photo: ARD Infomap)

On Sunday Berliners will vote their state assembly - the last state level election before spring 2017. The AfD is expected to win around 15% of the vote. But don’t be fooled. Even though Berlin is the capital city of Germany, it is far from typical German. Berlin has the highest percentage of long-term unemployed in the entire country (16.4% of Berliners receive Hartz-IV benefits). Berlin is the only capital city in Europe that has a lower productivity rate and a lower per-capita GDP than the national average. The populists will probably reach the highest results in the more depressing parts of the city, e.g. the Left Party strongholds Lichtenberg and Mahrzahn. And these districts see the heaviest campaigning by the AfD who hope to mobilise dissatisfied non-voters as well as specifically targeting those who feel most - economically or culturally - threatened by the migrant crisis, e.g. long-term unemployed or German-Russians (many AfD campaigning material in East Berlin is bilingual). A general trend in the region. What used to be the “professor party” has become an openly right-wing party in large parts of eastern Germany, including east Berlin.

 

Berlin also has more pressing issues that dominate the election campaign compared to MV. The dodgy unfinished international airport. The housing crisis. The chronically deficit budget (the city-state has over €60 bn debts). The completely incompetent municipal administration (citizens have to pre-book an appointment online at least 6 months in advance for basic services, such as renewing a passport or registering in the city). And yes, also the refugee crisis. The city was utterly overwhelmed when thousands of refugees arrived in the city. Many were camping in the centre at the city’s state Office of Health and Social Affairs (LAGeSO) seeking asylum in the city. A situation that was described by NGO veterans as a humanitarian crisis worse than many refugee camps in the Middle East. Of course this can also be blamed on the chaotic circumstances at the time in Germany (and the understandable urge for many refugees to go to the capital city), but the state agency was particularly inefficient and soon become synonymous for bad governance.

 

Unlike the March elections in three states, those in MV and Berlin are not happening during the most intense phases of the migrant crisis. The SPD and the CDU have shifted their politics considerably towards deterring migrants from reaching Germany - core demands of the anti-immigrant AfD. While Merkel still publicly upholds her “Yes we can” attitude, it is quite clear that the days of a more humane handling of the migration crisis (or in the words of the AfD “asylum chaos”) are over. Of course the current status quo strongly depends on the Turkey migrant deal, the situation in Libya and the future of the civil war in Syria. Nevertheless the election result shows that a party managed to mobilise a huge number of former non-voters on a single issue. This also makes obvious how deeply the refugee crisis split German public opinion (similar to Brexit) and the AfD was for long the only party opposing the government’s open-door policy.
Or maybe Germany is just overdue in joining the burgeoning anti-immigrant, anti-EU and general dissatisfaction with established politics in Europe? Merkel managed to buy herself a second chance with her new refugee policy. It all depends on the amount of migrants reaching the country. And of course on a credible alternative to Merkel as Chancellor. At the moment Merkel is still the more popular than Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the SPD, and the more anti-immigrant Horst Seehofer of the CSU. Her popularity even increased slightly in the week after the vote. Many Germans might be tired of Merkel but she seems to be her most likely successor for now.

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