Andrew McCathie –
The victory of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in Sunday’s election in Germany’s most populous state has left her in a commanding position as she gears up for the national poll in September.
The win by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in North Rhine Westphalia built on the CDU’s impressive victories in the two other recent state elections — in the coastal region of Schleswig Holstein and the small industrial state of Saarland.
Only a year ago, Merkel was battling to recover from a political backlash unleashed by her September 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to allow around one million refugees into the country, triggering speculation she might not stand for re-election this year.
But national opinion polls are showing her CDU now regaining political momentum. The party has chalked up a seven-percentage point lead over the centre-left Social Democrats (SDP), according to a voter survey released last week by Berlin-based pollsters Forsa.
“Merkel stands for continuity and stability,” said Forsa’s Peter Matuschek.
He said Europe’s most powerful leader was a safe choice in a turbulent world shaped by Britain’s exit from the European Union and an unpredictable White House under US President Donald Trump.
“She has developed the image of the crisis chancellor through the series of crises that have hit Europe such as the Greek debt crisis,” added Matuschek.
For the moment, the German economy also plays into the chancellor’s hands with business confidence near a six-year high, unemployment at a historic low, the nation’s key industrial sector turning in a buoyant performance and the country’s finances in good shape.
The three state elections have also helped strengthen Merkel’s grip on the CDU in the face of right-wing criticism of her centrist stance, including her liberal refugee policy.
The SPD’s defeat in the three state elections is a crushing blow to its national leader, the former European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
Nominated by the SPD in January to head up its September campaign, Schulz was initially seen as a new face on a political stage of well-known actors.
But after an initial surge in support following his nomination, the SPD has lost ground again with voters now backing Merkel over Schulz as their preferred chancellor.
“He has no public office and has been hardly visible,” political scientist Oskar Niedermayer said, adding that the new SPD leader remained too vague and undefined.
“We still do not know where for example he stands on refugee policy,” Niedermayer said.
Apart from calling for more social justice through changes to tough labour and welfare laws, the new SPD leader has had nothing much to say on the key issues facing the German electorate such as terrorism and security.
But a fresh terrorist attack risks driving the refugee crisis back into the headlines and throw Merkel’s campaign for a fourth term in September off course.
A December terrorist attack which left 12 dead at a Berlin Christmas market was carried out by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker.
Merkel’s answer to any further fallout from the refugee crisis has been to now shift the CDU to the right by tightening the nation’s asylum laws, spearheading a controversial EU deal with Turkey to curb the number of refugees travelling to northern Europe and stepping up deportations of failed asylum seekers.
Her government has also launched comprehensive refugee integration schemes, while at the same cracking down on criminality, including addressing a jump in petty crimes such as burglaries.