By Ian Bremmer
Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were trounced in regional elections this past weekend. It’s going to be that type of year for Merkel. Here are the 5 biggest risks that Merkel, the most important voice in any conversation about Europe’s future, faces over the coming months.
1. Political Rivals: Continuing Rise of the AfD
Merkel’s CDU finished in third place in regional elections last weekend in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, her home state. Finishing behind the second-place far-right and anti-EU Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) makes matters much worse. Nationalist parties have been on the rise across the continent, a particularly unnerving development for Merkel, a defender of the broader European project. The AfD is a relative newcomer to German politics, but it has hit the ground running. Since its founding in 2013, it has gone from polling at below 3 percent nationally to more than 12 percent today. It has made strides over the past 12 months by taking a hard line against Merkel’s ‘open-door’ policy on Syrian refugees. AfD now has deputies in over half of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and is predicted to enter at least a couple more. It’s been 70 years since xenophobic and nationalist politics have found such a real audience in Germany.
2. Political Partners: A Fracturing Coalition?
The ultimate victor of this weekend’s elections, with roughly 30 percent of the vote, was the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel and the CDU’s on-and-off coalition partners since 2005. But the rise of AfD and other parties is putting a strain on the long-standing partnership of center-left and -right forces in German politics. Sigmar Gabriel—head of the SDP, Minister for Economic Affairs and Merkel’s vice chancellor—U-turned on Merkel’s migration policy and has declared the TTIP E.U.-U.S. trade deal “failed.” Even some of her reliable allies are distancing themselves from Merkel, a jarring development for a politician who just two years ago was touted as the savior of Europe. If the CDU continues to fall flat in regional elections, like the one upcoming in Lower Saxony, Gabriel and the SPD will have even more reason to keep their distance, making governing—and campaigning ahead of next fall’s federal elections—that much more difficult for Merkel.
3. Migrants & Turkey
It’s not hard to see why Merkel and her party have tumbled in popularity. Merkel decided to throw open the doors to Syrian refugees last year, a morally courageous and politically risky act. The German state has clamped down considerably on refugee flows into the country—for example, by tightening border controls and asylum rules—in response to domestic backlash. New asylum seekers fell from 90,000 in January to 16,335 in June, but the PR damage has been done, and a majority of Germans disapprove of her migrant policy. Merkel’s political fate is now inextricably linked to this problem.