After the German state election results were released last night, the British press swiftly presented them as a protest against Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy. “Crushing verdict on open-door migration,” declared the Mail’s front page. “Voters send Merkel tough message over ‘open door’ refugee policy” was the Telegraph‘s verdict. “Merkel left wounded as Germans turn right” reported the Times.
But even the most cursory analysis discredits this interpretation. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has led the opposition to Merkel’s refugee policy (under which Germany has accepted 1.1 million asylum seekers), did indeed surge, finishing second in Saxony-Anhalt with 24.2 per cent of the vote and third in Baden-Württemberg (15.1 per cent) and Rhineland-Palatinate (12.6 per cent) – a startling performance by a party founded only three years ago. But this was merely a feature of the elections.
Far from punishing Merkel for her refugee policy, German voters returned supporters of it. In Baden-Württemberg, the pro-migrant Greens finished first with an increased vote share (24.1 per cent to 30.3 per cent). The party’s regional leader Winfried Kretschmann backed Merkel to the point of declaring that he was “praying” for her “health and well-being”. In Rhineland-Palatinate, Christian Democratic candidate Julia Klöckner, who challenged Merkel’s stance (and was spoken of as a possible successor), was defeated by the incumbent and pro-refugee SPD. In Saxony-Anhalt, where AfD performed best, it was the social democrats and the leftist Die Linke, rather than the CDU, who were punished most (evidence of the left’s continuing malaise). After losing just 2.7 per cent of its vote, Merkel’s party finished first.
Nor is there evidence that pro-refugee candidates won in spite of their stance. In two states, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, voters backed Merkel’s position by 25 and 15 points, while in Saxony-Anhalt they opposed it by just five. Though AfD’s rise is evidence of a discontented minority, the majority supported parties which endorse the government’s stance. The elections were a “verdict” on Merkel’s policy – but not the one the press would have you believe.