Shaky Times for Merkel as Elections Draw Near

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a news conference after a leaders meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party at party headquarters in Berlin in June. (AP file photo/Markus Schreiber)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — The leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a linchpin in Europe’s politics for the past 13 years, is on shaky ground in the run-up to state and party elections.

German politics and Merkel’s steady centrist leadership have been rocked recently by violent far-right protests in the East German city of Chemnitz, contentious remarks from the domestic intelligence chief that downplayed the Chemnitz protests and the defeat of a key ally of Merkel within her party.

“Her authority is fading fast,” an editorial in the Financial Times said on Tuesday, depicting the chancellor as having entered her political “twilight years.” The editorial warned that a collapse of Merkel’s government would “unsettle” a Europe “accustomed to her as a fixed point.”

At 64, Merkel is in her fourth term as chancellor since she took the helm in 2005. She is not expected to seek re-election in 2021 — if she makes it that far.

Merkel’s government is made up of a “grand coalition” of parties representing the right and the left. But the coalition parties are seeing their popularity under threat and have been wracked by infighting.

Voters in conservative-leaning Bavaria, a large southern state, will cast ballots on Oct. 14, and polls suggest Merkel’s conservative allies there — the Christian Social Union — could suffer big losses. The CSU has long been a governing partner with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Supporters are fleeing to a far-right anti-Islamic party, the Alternative for Germany, out of anger over Merkel’s welcoming about 1 million refugees and immigrants in 2015. The Greens too are ascendant in Bavaria.

Then come elections on Oct. 28 in Hesse, a central West German state that’s home to the financial capital of Frankfurt. Merkel’s CDU is the ruling party there, but it could suffer losses, analysts say.

In early December, the CDU will vote at a party congress in Hamburg for its chairman, a position held by Merkel. She has said she will run to remain party chairwoman, but she could face stiff opposition.

Growing dissatisfaction with Merkel within her party erupted last week when the CDU/CSU faction in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, voted to replace Merkel’s longtime ally and key legislator, Volker Kauder, as its next chairman. Critics in her party, many of whom find her policies too moderate, called on her to resign. A prominent party member called her a “lame duck.”

German media depicted Kauder’s loss as a major blow to Merkel and an opening act in the chancellor’s downfall. The German public appears to be souring too: A recent poll for Bild, a German tabloid newspaper, found 52 percent of respondents felt that Merkel had lost control of her coalition.

This is Merkel’s fourth government, and it’s been a struggle from the start. After winning elections in September 2017, Merkel’s CDU/CSU party spent months forming a new government. It held coalition talks first with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party and then joined forces with the Social Democrats and formed a government with them in March.

It didn’t take long, though, before there was talk of the coalition cracking. By early summer, Merkel and the leader of the CSU, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, had a falling out over refugee policies. Seehofer has advocated a tougher stance on immigration. The crisis was averted when Merkel agreed to tighten the borders in Bavaria against asylum-seekers.

The fall in Merkel’s popularity often is traced back to her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders during a massive influx of refugees and immigrants fleeing war and poverty. In August that year, she famously said Germany could handle the crisis. “We can manage this,” she said in Dresden after visiting a refugee camp. Opponents have used that statement against her.

Her position backfired when in December 2015 North African asylum-seekers were accused of sexual misconduct against women in Cologne.

A year later, a Tunisian man and failed asylum-seeker drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people. He was killed in a shootout with Italian police near Milan after the attack.

Since 2015, Merkel has changed her positions. She’s backed moves to make it easier to deport rejected asylum-seekers and she backed a deal to fund setting up refugee camps in Turkey.

But analysts say her 2015 decisions have nonetheless led to a xenophobic nationalist backlash, which was on display in Chemnitz at the end of August when thousands of protesters took to the streets to lash out at foreigners. The riots were sparked by the stabbing death of a man and the arrests of two asylum-seekers accused in the attack.

During the protests, many people were seen making Nazi salutes, which are illegal in Germany. Non-German citizens, journalists and police were injured in clashes. There were also reports of people of foreign origin being chased by far-right extremists.

Worsening matters for the government, the head of the domestic intelligence agency downplayed what happened in Chemnitz. In an interview with Bild, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, claimed there had been “deliberate misinformation” about what took place. He questioned the authenticity of videos showing people being chased by extremists.

His statements, which contradicted Merkel’s outrage over the events, caused an uproar. In response, he was removed and placed at a higher-paying job at the interior ministry, causing more outrage. Then he was made a special adviser within the ministry.

Despite it all, many analysts do not predict Merkel will be pushed out easily. Her reign has been marked by crises and she has proven to be one of the world’s most effective politicians at handling stormy times.

“The media have been calling the end of Merkel almost since the day she took office” in 2005, an editor for Handelsblatt, a German newspaper, wrote last week. “Saying she may not survive what she herself has said is her last term underestimates her abilities as a politician. Her time has not yet come.”

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