With the September 18 elections in Berlin, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to enter the 10th regional parliament in Germany.
While the AfD is drawing voters from all mainstream parties, the bleeding is strongest for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The AfD has succeeded at turning regional elections into referenda on the chancellor’s refugee policy.
On September 4, in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the AfD even managed to gain more votes than the CDU, dealing the chancellor’s party a highly symbolic defeat. Now polling between 9 and 14 percent nationwide, the AfD is likely to enter parliament with a strong showing in the autumn of 2017.
This marks the decisive end of German exceptionalism on populism. While for years right-wing populist forces have had strong presence in all of its neighbours, they did not seem to have much luck in Germany.
For years, Merkel seemed to be able to defy political gravity. She pulled her conservative CDU towards the centre-left, made it more social-democratic (by protecting and partly expanding social security benefits), greener (by promising to end the use of nuclear power) and more open to Islam (by stating that Islam is a part of Germany).
She gained a considerable amount of centrist voters and did not seem to have to pay any price for it since no party was able to establish itself to the right of the CDU.
Staying in the centre seems a sensible path for the CDU. This would acknowledge that it likely cannot prevent the very existence of a party such as the AfD to its right which has become a fixture of all 'normal' European countries.
Despite years of Euro crisis, the AfD received only 4.7 percent of the nationwide vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections.
This all changed with the mass arrival of (mostly Muslim) refugees. The party decisively morphed into a nativist, anti-Islam force and has scored double-digit results in all regional elections since the autumn of 2015.
Now facing a strong populist pull, governing in a centrist fashion will become harder for Merkel, whom AfD vice-chair Gauland derides as a “chancellor-dictator”. On refugees and migration, the AfD favours Australian-style detention centres on yet uninhabited island territories and is in favour of introducing full-fledged border controls within the European Union passport-free Schengen area.
AfD leader Frauke Petry advocated using firearms to restrict border crossings of “illegal migrants” into Germany. On refugees, Merkel has already adjusted her stance most significantly. She now emphasises controlling the EU’s external borders, improving conditions for refugees in the Middle East and Africa, and keeping as many refugees out of Europe as possible.
Germany has already tightened its asylum rules and is starting to enforce the deportation of rejected asylum seekers with greater vigour.
For Merkel, communicating this change of approach more forcefully (something she has steadfastly refused to do over the the past year) could therefore go a long way in terms of countering the radical AfD proposals.
In addition, there will be additional pressure on Merkel to soften her line vis-a-vis Russian President Vladimir Putin. The stance of the AfD towards authoritarian regimes such as Russia is remarkable. The AfD party platform clearly states the principle of “not interfering with the domestic matters of other states”.
The AfD has been one of the strongest pro-Putin forces in German politics. According to a recent poll, 30 percent of AfD voters trust Putin more than they trust Merkel.
In the same vein, while nominally in favour of NATO and “Westbindung” (Germany’s anchoring in the West), the AfD demands the assertion of German sovereignty by getting rid of all United States troops on German soil and all nuclear weapons stationed in Germany.
Still, compared with her counterparts in Austria and France, Merkel is still in a more comfortable position.
As centre-left leaders, French President Francois Hollande and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern have to contend with two main parties to their right competing for who is toughest on migrants, refugees, Muslims and the EU. Merkel only faces the AfD to her right.
For the time being, Merkel’s biggest danger is the rising nervousness within her own party and the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister. Her internal critics demand drastic changes towards immigration and the role of Islam in order to put the AfD genie back into the bottle.
Over the past weeks, CDU and CSU officials have floated a number of ideas from a ban on the burka to outlawing dual citizenship – targeting Turkish Germans.
Merkel joined into the populist chorus for the first time two weeks ago when she demanded that all those with Turkish roots living in Germany “develop a high degree of loyalty to our country”.
In return, she promised to “try to have an open ear for their concerns”. This patronising language endangers the significant progress that has been made thanks to a more open position of the CDU on Islam in Germany.
Merkel’s CDU needs to choose whether it wants to be a modern and open conservative party or one that incorporates a hardliner wing with AfD views.
The laws of political gravity seem to dictate that you cannot be both. And even if you play to the right, you have no guarantee that voters won’t go for the AfD original.
Therefore, staying in the centre seems a sensible path for the CDU. This would acknowledge that it is unlikely to be able to prevent the very existence of a party such as the AfD to its right which has become a fixture of all “normal” European countries.
But what it can do is keep the seemingly unavoidable populist right small by winning back the trust of many citizens currently casting their protest vote with the AfD.
Thorsten Benner is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.