The chancellor who opened Germany’s borders to more than a million people fleeing the Middle East and Africa has been pelted with tomatoes, booed and shouted down by protesters
'Mutti' Merkel is hated by some but still looks unbeatable in German election
If he had the right to vote, Riyad Aledrise, a Libyan refugee who fled to Germany with his family in 2013 and lives in Berlin, would not think twice about who to back in Sunday’s election.
“Angela Merkel, and most refugees are rooting for her as well because she gave people hope of a fresh start and a better life,” Mr Aledrise, 47, told The National.
Yet at campaign rallies around the country, the chancellor who opened Germany’s borders to more than a million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa since 2015 has been pelted with tomatoes, booed and shouted down by protesters roaring “traitor of the people” and “liar.”
To hurl vegetables and abuse at the internationally respected chancellor would have been unheard of in previous elections and shows she is no longer as unassailable as in 2013, when she scored a personal triumph by leading her Christian Democratic Union party to its best result since the heady days of reunification in 1990.
The 63-year-old chancellor, who has been in power since 2005 and is dubbed the nation’s “Mutti” or “Mummy”, has become a hate figure to millions of Germans. The refugee crisis has divided the country and invigorated the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) which looks set to become the first far-right party to enter parliament in more than 60 years.
Yet opinion polls show she is almost certain to win a fourth term in Sunday’s election. Political scientist Gero Neugebauer at Berlin’s Free University has an intriguing analogy of the nation’s changing relationship with Ms Merkel.
“In 2005 when Mutti’s rule began, the electorate was a child,” he told The National. “But now it has reached adolescence and is casting a more critical eye on its mother and becoming increasingly aware of her weaknesses. But it also sees her strengths and isn’t ready to leave home yet.”
Opinion polls shows there is no mood for change. Support for her conservatives is at 36 per cent, 14 points ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats of her challenger Martin Schulz, according to a poll by the Insa institute published on Sunday. Pollsters are saying it would take a miracle for her to be ousted. The only question is which party will become her junior coalition partner.
It might seem surprising that Ms Merkel is so certain to win despite the migrant controversy. But the mighty economy is firing on all cylinders and generating so many new jobs that companies cannot fill them. And with an unpredictable Donald Trump in the White House, the growing North Korean nuclear threat, Russia flexing its muscles and a simmering diplomatic crisis with Turkey stoked by its combative president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chancellor embodies what Germany craves most: stability.
“She’s the one who gives the biggest sense of security, she handled the 2008 financial crisis and then the euro debt crisis and now she’s seen as a safe pair of hands in the uncertain global environment,” Manfred Gullner, director of the Forsa polling institute, told The National. “She’s like the nation’s shield.”
She has also managed the refugee influx. Despite refusing to abandon her open-door policy, the number of migrants fell sharply last year, to 280,000 from 890,000 in 2015, due to borders closing along the so-called Balkan route up to Germany from Greece and a refugee deal with Turkey to stop illegal migration across the Aegean.
This year, the numbers have dropped even further and, under mounting pressure following terrorist attacks by asylum-seekers last year, Ms Merkel’s government has stepped up the expulsion of rejected migrants and placed strict curbs on the immigration of refugees’ family members. In what was widely labelled as a media stunt, authorities last week deported 12 Afghan asylum-seekers, ignoring criticism that Afghanistan is too unsafe to send people back there.
It was also an attempt to steal the thunder of the rabidly anti-immigrant AfD, which wants to ban minarets and is wooing voters with campaign posters bearing slogans such as “Bikinis not Burqas”. One of its leaders recently caused outrage by saying Germany could be proud of the achievements of its soldiers in the Second World War.
Ms Merkel’s refugee policy is being blamed for the rise of the AfD, but opinion pollsters are confident that even though the party will easily clear the five per cent hurdle to get into parliament on Sunday, its support will not exceed 13 to 15 per cent at the very most. However, all the other parties have pledged not to work with the AfD so it will not enter government.
“There has always been a latent potential of right-wing extremism in Germany but it hasn’t manifested itself in votes before,” said Mr Gullner. “The AfD is managing to exploit that potential because it has become socially acceptable and the media are partly to blame because they’re treating them like a normal party rather than labelling them as extremist right-wingers.
“It’s been a difficult process but the Germans have become democrats, we have turned from obedient subjects into mature citizens of the state. We’ve become tolerant and pacifist, we’re no longer killing our neighbours the way we did for hundreds of years. Ninety per cent of us are democrats, and 10 per cent are anti-democrats. That’s a historic achievement.”
The migrant influx has even bolstered support for Ms Merkel among people who do not see themselves as conservatives. “Many think she deserves respect for giving Germany a humanitarian face in the world,” said Mr Neugebauer.
Critics say the chancellor has failed to implement urgently needed reforms to equip Germany for the future. She has not practised the austerity she preached to the rest of Europe during the debt crisis, and has presided over a rise to record levels in welfare spending.
That bodes ill for a country with an ageing population and a dwindling number of people paying into the welfare system. Pensions will have to fall or pension contributions will have to rise. The number of births has halved from the annual 1.4 million in the 1960s, and that huge baby boomer generation will reach retirement age in 2025.
She has also neglected infrastructure, say her critics, and pandered too long to the fixation of German automakers on diesel technology rather than electric mobility, where Germany lags behind manufacturers in the US, France and Japan.
Germany's trains are no longer famous for running on time and its motorways are clogged due to underinvestment. And the country’s digital infrastructure is in a woeful state, with high-speed glass-fibre cables making up just 1.8 per cent of its broadband connections, far behind France with 7.9 per cent, the US with 11.2 per cent and Sweden with 55 per cent.
That shortfall poses a risk for a country whose core industries, auto-making and engineering, are on the brink of a digital industrial revolution.
Ms Merkel has shown her credentials as a crisis manager. But after 12 years, the cautious, ever-pragmatic chancellor has yet to prove that she can tackle painful reforms, and some doubt whether she has the stomach for it. Last November, when she announced, after some delay, that she would run for a fourth term, there was a hint of reluctance and fatigue, and a sense that she did not want to abandon ship with the refugee crisis still unsolved.
“The decision to run for a fourth term after 11 years in office is anything but trivial, neither for the country, nor for the party, nor for me personally,” she said at the time. But she added, “I want to serve Germany.”
Governing is certain to be harder after this election. The next coalition she forges will be altogether more fragile than the outgoing so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats, which commands a huge parliamentary majority. The SPD may baulk at another four years as her junior partner. If she ends up in a shaky alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens party, that could put her mediating skills to the test on a daily basis.
But for Mr Aledrise, the refugee who now works for a group that helps migrants, the most important thing is that she remains chancellor.
“I find the AfD’s campaign poster is just ridiculous," he said. "Their talk doesn’t scare me. Nothing scares me. The politics may have changed but the ordinary German people haven’t. We can see it every day. Whenever we place an appeal for help on the internet, people come the next day with cars full of clothing and toys.”