This past Sunday saw a stunning defeat of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the hands of an ascendent radical right-wing party known as the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD).
The local defeat took place in Merkel’s own parliamentary constituency in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. While the results do not threaten CDU’s hold on power nationally, they provide a sobering look at voter sentiment just a year out from national elections.
Merkel’s governing party not only fell behind AfD in this past weekend’s elections, but was also defeated by the center-left Social Democrats, leaving CDU in third place in what has historically been a safe district for the party.
Analysts point to the Germany government’s policy on refugees as the primary catalyst for the rise of populist, anti-immigrant sentiment among the nation’s population. Frauke Petry – leader for the AfD – credits Merkel’s open border policy for her own party’s success:
The CDU is falling apart, but not only [in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania]. We see that in many regions of Germany where the CDU bases, the party bases, don’t agree with Merkel’s policy anymore. We want that the German government closes German borders to illegal migration… We need controlled borders. We need a change of legislation on a German level, but also an EU level, to avoid illegal migration.
CDU candidate Lorenz Caffier agreed, stating that “there was only one subject during the campaign, and that subject was the refugee policy. The refugee question was decisive.”
In 2015, Merkel’s government accepted more than 1 million refugees – mainly Syrians fleeing the intractable conflict in their home country – making it the single most open nation in Europe. Over the past year, several attacks linked to Islamists have heightened fears of immigration and provided fuel for nationalists to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.
Far from being unique, Germany is a piece of a larger puzzle. Far-right nationalist parties are succeeding across Europe. In France, the National Front has made great strides in recent years, taking advantage of voters’ insecurities stemming from immigration and terror attacks.
Earlier this year, Petry sparked outrage when she suggested that the border patrol shoot immigrants attempting to cross illegally into Germany. This language is a big deal. Since the horrors of WWII, Germany has celebrated a culturally liberal spirit that has shamed many other nations with an emphasis on multiculturalism and acceptance.
These historical tendencies – however – are now under threat from rising populist parties that offer few solutions to their voters’ economic and cultural fears other than promises of international isolation and the marginalization of disadvantaged communities. While the issues that have caused the largest displacement of people in a century are complex and variegated, further disenfranchising desperate populations will only abet the very terrorists that have contributed to refugees’ plight.
Not only is a more humane treatment necessary to promote the general social good, but it’s integral to any meaningful security policy designed to keep Western nations safe.