German voters punish Merkel in regional elections

Merkel's party loses two out of three state elections as anti-refugee AfD makes big gains

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party addresses a Baden-Wuerttemberg state election campaign rally in Haigerloch, southwestern Germany March 12, 2016.

Updated Mar 14, 2016

Voters punished Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in three German regional elections on Sunday, giving a thumbs-down to her open-door refugee policy and turning in droves to the anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The result is a big setback for Merkel, who has led Europe's biggest economy for a decade, and could narrow her room for manoeuvre as she tries to convince her European Union partners to share the burden and to seal a deal with Turkey to stem the tide of refugees.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) lost ground in all three states - Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in the west and Saxony-Anhalt in the east - which were together widely seen as offering a verdict on Merkel's liberal migrant policy.

"These results are a serious rebuke for Merkel and the most pronounced protest vote we've seen so far," said Holger Schmieding, an analyst at Berenberg Bank.

The result in the two western states was the worst-case scenario for Merkel, who has staked her legacy on her decision to open Germany's doors to over 1 million refugees last year.

"The result will increase the noise within the CDU and constrain the government's options on migrants and Greece, but Merkel's chancellorship is not at risk," said Carsten Nickel at Teneo Intelligence.

Bjoern Hoecke (R) of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party celebrates after first local elections polls in Magdeburg, Germany March 13, 2016.

AfD rides high

With a high turnout in all the votes, the AfD, already represented in five of Germany's 16 regional assemblies, succeeded in entering three more, as its support was strongest in Saxony-Anhalt, where it grabbed 24.2 percent of the vote.

With campaign slogans such as "Secure the borders" and "Stop the asylum chaos," it was the first time the AfD had come as high as second in any state.

"We have fundamental problems in Germany that led to this election result," said AfD chief Frauke Petry.

The CDU's leader in Saxony-Anhalt pointed the finger squarely at Merkel for his party's losses.

"The issue that has brought the AfD into parliaments across Germany can't be ignored on a federal level any more. We need solutions," Reiner Haseloff told ARD television.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg in the southwest, the Greens for the first time became the strongest party in a state, with 31.1 percent of the vote, ZDF television projections indicated.

State Premier Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens (Die Gruenen) party is applauded by his wife Gerlinde (L) as he celebrates following first exit polls in the state election in Baden-Wuerttemberg in Stuttgart, Germany, March 13, 2016.

The state was a CDU stronghold for more than 50 years before turning to a Green-led coalition with the SPD in 2011 after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and CDU support fell by another 12 percentage points on Sunday.

Also damaging for the CDU was the result in Rhineland-Palatinate, the home of former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

It is still unclear which coalitions will take power in each state, but the splintered vote opens the prospect of deep changes to the political landscape.

TRTWorld, Reuters