“It would be particularly hard to bear for all of us”, Angela Merkel said in a press conference on Tuesday morning, “if it was confirmed that someone who had sought protection and asylum in Germany had carried out this deed”. Likely one of the hardest press appearances of her career, a visibly affected German chancellor responded to the events of 19 December, when a lorry ploughed through one of the capital’s most visited Christmas markets – in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a key symbol of the destructiveness of war.
So far, political and media responses in Germany have been measured. In an interview shortly before midnight on Monday, Germany’s Home Secretary Thomas de Maizière specifically warned of the “psychological effects” of any terminology employed – refusing at the time to call it a terrorist attack. Twelve hours later, it fell to the Chancellor to do so. The man detained by police last night has denied involvement, and German authorities are currently unsure if he is the perpetrator of the attack. He was captured in a park after reportedly fleeing the scene and was named in German media reports as Naved Baluch, a 23-year-old asylum seeker of Pakistani origin.
Merkel’s critics from the far right, by contrast, took to Twitter within minutes of the calamitous events to lay the blame entirely and personally at her door. In a bitter twist of irony, they called the state media’s caution to apportion blame as the real “fake news”. By employing the hashtag #LokalesEreignis (local event), many made reference to the rape and murder of a medical student in southern Germany several months prior, which critics say was inadequately covered by national media when it was confirmed that the assailant was a refugee.
The link between the events and Merkel’s “open arms” refugee policy, which saw 890,000 asylum seekers arrive in the country in 2015, will inevitably be a topic of debate over the coming weeks. With federal elections – and Merkel’s fourth candidacy for the chancellorship – due to be held in autumn 2017, these tragic events cannot help but take on a political significance. Thwarting any hopes the government — a “grand coalition” between Merkel’s conservative CDU and the social democrat SPD — may have harboured of avoiding the topic dominating the election campaign, this attack will bring this most sensitive of issues to the fore.
The populist, far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are unlikely to let the opportunity slip to further exploit the anxieties of the German electorate, which the attack will inevitably exacerbate. A newcomer that has swept into regional parliaments in the past year on popular discontent with the status quo – most recently in Berlin – the party now consistently polls between 10 per cent and 13 per cent. In the eastern state of Saxony, the party would today garner an astonishing 25 per cent of the vote. It is almost certain to enter the federal parliament in autumn 2017, disrupting Germany’s political landscape, and its self-image, in the process.
There is of course no spectre of a German version of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, or Norbert Hofer contesting the highest political office in the country. For obvious historical reasons, the German electoral system – a variant of proportional representation – is full of checks and balances. It does not allow the direct election of its chancellor. Electoral maths makes it unlikely that the AfD would end up being kingmaker, and no other parties would contemplate entering into an alliance with it anyhow. Nor is a credible internal alternative to Merkel’s candidacy conceivable. Not only did a recent poll find that 59 per cent still approved of her seeking the chancellorship again. It also showed that any social democrat contender would face an uphill struggle. But the AfD’s rise makes electoral politics more raw and unpredictable than they have been for decades – and stokes concerns about a political sea change that may end up overturning, some time in the future, Germany’s seemingly secure post-war status quo.
With public opinion polls throughout 2016 revealing the beating Merkel’s popularity has taken as the refugee crisis has unfolded, her own stance has significantly hardened. She recently proposed a partial ban of the burqa and niqab and pledged never to repeat her open door policy. With political options increasingly restricted, the real question is how – or indeed if – European governments are able to find a response to the multiple challenges they are confronting. With an increasingly insecure, complex and unpredictable world on the one hand, and the rising appeal of radical parties offering black and white answers to it on the other, the challenge to the political centre ground may never have been fiercer.
Dr Uta Staiger is the executive director of UCL’s European Institute