Chancellor Angela Merkel is embarking on an election campaign that will test whether Germans back her management of the country’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
Merkel will hold her first rally of the month-long push on Thursday ahead of three state elections on March 13. With the votes looming, her approval rating is at the lowest in 4 1/2 years, members of her own party are revolting against her migrant policy and her coalition is squabbling over the best path forward.
Merkel, working to maintain control of the most serious crisis of her decade-long grip on power, has toughened her tone on asylum seekers following sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve that involved migrants. Germany’s welcome has waned after the arrival of more than 1 million refugees last year and the chancellor needs to convince voters that she’ll reduce the flow, even though a Europe-wide deal to secure the region’s borders and resettle refugees has eluded her.
Voters will go to the polls in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt. Merkel has scheduled 20 campaign appearances. While her Christian Democratic Union may win all three contests, a strong showing by the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, could still be a blow to Merkel’s political standing.
“The rise of the populists will further fuel CDU nervousness over the migration crisis,” Carsten Nickel, a political-risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence, wrote in a note on Feb. 4.
Founded in 2013 during the euro crisis as a protest party demanding Germany’s exit from the single currency, the AfD has shifted its ire to the country’s wave of asylum seekers, demanding Merkel close the border and impose strict limits on migration. The AfD, which isn’t represented in the German parliament, has seized on the crisis to nab 12 percent support nationally, according to an INSA poll released Feb. 9. Merkel’s CDU-led bloc has slumped in the survey to 32.5 percent from 42 percent at the end of August. Three other polls this month put the CDU’s support at as much as 36 percent.
The AfD’s rise has built unprecedented pressure on Merkel, who traveled to Turkey this week to try and reach an agreement to contain the refugee flow from war-ravaged Syria. Next week, she’ll try to overcome resistance from within the 28-member European Union to a joint approach to the crisis during a summit of EU leaders.
At home, she’ll be campaigning for CDU candidates for the three state premierships. In the southwestern state of Baden- Wuerttemberg — home to Daimler AG and Porsche AG—her CDU hopes to unseat the Green-led government that assumed office five years ago after the party was buoyed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany’s main wine- producing region, the Social Democrats have governed for almost 25 years. Saxony-Anhalt, which lies in former East Germany, is run by the CDU in coalition with the SPD. The CDU is currently leading the polls in all three regions.