(AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party on Monday digested another stinging poll loss, in Berlin state elections, and the relentless rise of the right-wing populist AfD which rails against her liberal refugee policy.
With one year to go until an expected general election, Merkel’s conservatives were licking their wounds after being turfed out of the left-right coalition government in the capital, Germany’s biggest city.
It was the fifth regional poll in a row showing losses for the Christian Democrats that Merkel will have to answer for, as voter angst over the arrival of one million refugees and migrants last year continues to shake her once firm standing with the electorate.
Markus Soeder, a vocal critic from her conservative bloc, called the vote a “massive wake-up call” for her to impose strict limits on migration.
“The Christian Union risks a lasting and giant loss of trust among its core voters,” he told the daily Bild.
Analysts said the drubbing would force Merkel, widely seen as Europe’s most influential leader, to focus on German affairs at a time when the EU is facing slugging economic growth, growing divisions over its migration policy and Britain’s impending exit.
The Berlin election continued a trend of surging support for fringe parties, with both the far left and the right wing the winners of the day.
It also mirrored the march of anti-migrant parties in France, Austria and the Netherlands and Republican maverick Donald Trump in the United States.
– Foothold for hard right –
The upstart Alternative for Germany (AfD) harnessed a wave of popular anger to claim around 14 percent of the vote in a city that has long prided itself on its diversity and international appeal.
The strong AfD result, thanks to support especially in the vast tower block districts in Berlin’s former communist east a quarter century after reunification, meant it has now won opposition seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 states.
But its fifth-place showing fell well short of its expectations, leading some analysts to suggest its spectacular success in recent months is losing some steam.
Its string of victories nevertheless indicates that for the first time since World War II, a party to the right of the CDU has established a foothold in German politics.
“We are firmly convinced that we will land in the Bundestag (national parliament) with a double-digit score” next year, AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen said.
Berlin’s SPD Mayor Michael Mueller had dramatically warned before the polls that a strong AfD result would be “seen throughout the world as a sign of the resurgence of the right and of Nazis in Germany”.
Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) claimed just 18 percent — its worst post-war result in the city, before or after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall — likely spelling the end of its term as junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats (SPD), who won around 22 percent.
The German leader was expected to acknowledge the defeat at a news conference later Monday but also emphasise the specific, local aspects of the race.
“The CDU lost but this time it is not primarily a defeat for the chancellor,” news website Spiegel Online wrote.
But it noted that although the AfD had fallen short of its own goal of a second-place finish, “the right-wing populists — sad but true — now belong to the new normal in Germany”.
– Party that built the Wall –
Both of the mainstream parties which have taken turns governing Germany since the war incurred heavy losses, with the SPD shedding nearly seven points since the last election five years ago and the CDU almost six points.
The hard-left Linke, which has roots in the East German communist party that built the Berlin Wall, gained four points to capture 16 percent of the vote.
And the ecologist Greens landed in third place with 15 percent, meaning they will likely form a ruling coalition with the SPD and Linke.
The election in the chronically indebted city-state of 3.5 million people was dominated by local issues including poor public services, crumbling school buildings, late trains and a housing shortage, as well as problems in coping with the migrant influx.
The biggest EU economy took in one million asylum seekers last year, and over 70,000 of them came to Berlin, with hundreds still housed in the cavernous hangars of the Nazi-built former Tempelhof airport, once the hub for the Cold War-era Berlin airlift.