Saturday 18 November 2017

Germany's Iron Lady faces the ultimate test of her electoral mettle

New German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is congratulated by drag queen Olivia Jones, who is a member of the electoral college, after his election victory was confirmed in Berlin yesterday. The former foreign minister has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump. Photo: AP
New German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is congratulated by drag queen Olivia Jones, who is a member of the electoral college, after his election victory was confirmed in Berlin yesterday. The former foreign minister has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump. Photo: AP

Tom Rowley

It was a result that would thrill even a dictator. On a Saturday in late January, members of the local branch of Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) met in the former East German town of Grimmen, half an hour from the country's Baltic coast, to choose their candidate for September's federal elections.

Of the 173 voters, 165 plumped for the woman who has dominated this constituency since 1990, ruled her party since 2000 and is now well into her 12th year as Germany's indomitable chancellor.

Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters
Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters

As the party's local spokesman put it: "We stand behind her."

But will her country? A day after that vote, Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament and a fresh face in domestic politics, was officially crowned as her main national challenger. His Social Democratic party (SPD) immediately leapt by up to eight points in polls.

There is a renewed threat from the right, too. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has capitalised on discontent over Mrs Merkel's "open door" policy - which has resulted in more than a million refugees and migrants coming to Germany in the past two years - and achieved strong showings in regional elections.

As Melanie Amann, a political correspondent for 'Der Spiegel' magazine, said: "She is facing the toughest challenge of her career. She has lost this aura of being invincible."

She also looks increasingly isolated abroad. Sympathetic counterparts such as Barack Obama and David Cameron have fallen, while Brexit, Donald Trump's presidency and populists such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands threaten Mrs Merkel's vision of open borders and the future of the EU itself.

With challenges piling up at home and internationally, where did it go wrong for Germany's Iron Lady?

Jurgen Opitz can still recall the exact moment the trouble began. At 2.08pm on Aug 18, 2015, the softly spoken former engineer, who has been mayor of the small Saxon town of Heidenau for four years, got a call that changed everything.

The next day, he was told, 700 refugees would be arriving. "I closed the door of my office and yelled 's**t!'" Mr Optiz said.

Only the previous week, he had delivered assurances the town's derelict DIY store would not be used as a shelter. Now, he was told to perform a high-speed U-turn.

Within days, more than 1,000 people - a mix of far-right extremists and concerned locals - were marching past his home, calling him a traitor.

The chancellor soon paid the political price. By early 2016, her approval rating had fallen to 46pc, 24 points below its peak.

Mrs Merkel faced even stronger criticism from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's sister party, which has long controlled Bavaria. "People like her but she has gone too far," former CSU deputy leader Peter Gauweiler said. "She wants to say we are the moral, politically correct Germans, but the working classes have to pay for this dream."

The AfD makes similar arguments. Until the migrant influx, only one in 20 Germans supported this new party. But last year it was on the march, winning 21pc in an election in Mrs Merkel's back yard of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

Its support has dwindled a little, but it is still on course to become the first far-right party to win parliamentary seats since 1945.

Still, the safest bet remains that, at 62, Germany's chancellor will go on. However, like another famous female leader, she might find herself winning elections but losing allies.

"We will see the tragedy of all chancellors," said Prof Werner Patzelt, a political scientist. "They can't leave office as long as they are successful because it would be irresponsible. So they have to leave office when they become unsuccessful - just like the Iron Lady." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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