When Germans go to the polls in parliamentary elections this Sunday, their chancellor, Angela Merkel, will finally know whether what’s been called her “great gamble” was worth it.
Two years ago, when she decided to open Germany’s door to almost one million refugees, her critics said it would be the death knell of her political career.
Not so, according to opinion polls.
Josef Janning, a Berlin-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Merkel is still basking in a certain “feel-good factor” in Germany.
“We didn’t used to think about this country as being great,” he says. “Not in the sense of being ‘uber alles’ [above everything else] as the first verse of the traditional German national anthem goes … but in the sense of being a good place to live.”
It’s the message Merkel’s campaign posters deliver, wrapped in the sometimes undulating, sometimes geometric colours of the German flag, with the slogan: “Where we live well and where we like to live.”
A bit clumsy in translation perhaps, but Merkel’s success will depend on her ability to assure Germans it’s going to stay that way.
Because her great gamble has not been without consequences.
For starters, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees offered far-right groups floundering in the political wilderness a new sense of purpose.
In the city of Dresden most Monday evenings, crowds of about 700 people gather for what they bill as an “evening stroll,” which starts from a new location each week.
At last Monday’s march, it quickly became clear the media aren’t well-liked. Calls of “Lugenpresse!” followed us through the crowds, an old Nazi slur that means “lying press.”
But the real ire was reserved for refugees. The march is organized by Pegida: Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
“Angela Merkel brought to Europe abuse, rape and murder,” a man with the microphone says to roaring chants of “Merkel must go!”
“The Germans are voting for their own hangman.”
Most in the crowd were elderly pensioners who accuse Merkel of preferring to spend money on refugees and their language programs than on her own people.
But there were also a few young faces, including a 28-year-old named Tim. He wouldn’t give his last name but said he belongs to the Identitarian movement, a new nationalistic youth group currently being monitored by German intelligence.
Tall and strapping, he fits the Identitarian image of hipster alt-right youth.
“Here in Dresden, people are showing very openly their flags and in no other German city are they doing this,” he says. “To make sure that people don’t forget that there is a German people and who they are and the resistance they show.”
Many in the crowd, including Tim, say they’ll be voting for the Alternative for Germany party, AFD. It began with an anti-European Union platform, but shifted to include stridently xenophobic positions during the refugee crisis.
Its support was much higher last year, but it’s still polling at around 11 per cent. That’s enough for it to win a place in parliament. If it does, it will be the first time a far-right party has entered the Bundestag since the 1950s.
And given the nature of coalition politics in Germany, it could even become the main opposition party.
Barbara John, a commissioner for integration and immigration in Berlin in the 1980s, believes the AFD might perform better than its polling suggests.
“The heavy influx of 1.45 million asylum seekers in the last three years was too much for many people,” she says.
The fact the number of refugees dropped by 69 per cent between 2015 and 2016 has undoubtedly made things easier for Merkel. So, too, has low unemployment and strong growth.
This is the key for mainstream voters, according to analyst Josef Janning.
“It’s not the prime issue whether Merkel was right in 2015,” he says. “The prime issue is how do we deal with the people that are here now.”
In other words, how to successfully integrate such a large number of people.