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20 December 2016

The Berlin attack won’t finish Angela Merkel – and the killing of Andrei Karlov doesn’t mean war

Last night’s events attest to the growing global instability – but they won’t accelerate it.

By Stephen Bush

The world has been rocked by three terrorist attacks in a matter of hours. Here’s what we know for sure:

In Germany, a truck drove into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people at time of writing and injuring more than 50. The event is being treated as a deliberate attack. German media has identified the driver as “Naved B”, a Pakistani immigrant.

The truck had Polish driving plates but it’s not clear if the second occupant – who was found dead in the car after the crash – was a willing accomplice or if the truck was hijacked. The driver fled the scene but has been captured by the police.

In Turkey, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, has been shot dead at an art gallery by Mevlut Altintas, a 22-year-old riot policeman, who, according to onlookers, shouted “I am on the path of Syria, I am on the path of Aleppo” before opening fire, and shouted “Allahu akbar. We are the ones who have pledged ourselves to Mohammed in jihad” as attendees fled.

In Switzerland, three people were shot at a mosque in Zurich. Two of the three were seriously injured, and the assailant fled. His body was later found near the scene. Swiss police are scheduled to speak to the press at one pm. (That’s Greenwich Mean Time)

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What’s the political fallout? Though the assassination of a Russian diplomat in Turkey had people nervous yesterday, the affair looks likely to accelerate rather than to stop the warming of relations between the two nations following Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s successful defeat of a coup attempt in in July. While the West equivocated about the coup, Vladimir Putin backed Erdogan, contributing to the growing closeness of the two. Officials on both sides were de-escalating the row and there will be a joint investigation into the killing.

In Zurich we await the police press conference. But it’s Germany that is attracting most of the instant punditry. Since admitting a million refugees to Germany last year, much of the right-wing press here in Britain has been pronouncing the political death of Angela Merkel and today’s papers are no exception.

“What began as an act of great humanity, borne in part out of Germany’s lingering guilt for WW2, has morphed into Merkel’s political suicide,” says the Sun, “a stunning act of political kamikaze that plunges her future into grave jeopardy.”

Are they right? Well, it’s too early to say. But for all the media profile given to the AfD, the nativist rightwing party that has surged to 12-15 per cent in the polls, most German voters haven’t punished parties with a pro-refugee policy, at least not yet. This attack may change minds in the short term but don’t forget that the Paris attacks saw an uptick in Francois Hollande’s popularity that quickly faded away.

The biggest threat to Merkel’s hopes of a fourth term remains not her own party, which leads in the polls, but what happens to the parties seeking to replace her. If the SPD can form a red-red-green coalition with themselves, Die Linke and the Greens, they will seek to replace her. Equally, if the SPD vote share drops much further, the current grand coalition would be unable to command a majority, meaning she could survive, but would be weakened at home and abroad. At the moment, both those outcomes look unlikely – but for all the press in Britain writes up the AfD, Merkel’s future hinges on what happens to the German left, not to its right.