Angela Merkel was expecting a friendly chat with business women when she visited Dresden earlier this month. Instead, far-right protesters jeered the German Chancellor’s arrival.
Hundreds of demonstrators from the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, a group known as Pegida, gathered in the historic city to voice their anger at Merkel and her decision to welcome over a million refugees since 2015. One threw a bottle at a journalist, another gave a Nazi salute, while a third denied the Holocaust, a criminal offense in Germany. A poster bearing Merkel’s image read: Terrorists Welcome.
Despite nearly a decade of consistent economic growth, there’s growing fatigue with Merkel and the ruling parties, particularly in the former communist East, which has undergone decades of social and economic change. The region that saw massive right-wing protests last year is now back in focus as voters in three states go to the polls this fall. In two of them — Saxony and Brandenburg — Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their junior partner, the Social Democrats, may lose for the first time since reunification in 1990, to the upstart Alternative for Germany, or AfD. That could not only implode her fragile coalition but upend a political landscape dominated by two parties since World War II.
“That is the writing on the wall for the traditional parties,” Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “This will shake up the system.”
Merkel’s coalition is already hanging by a thread, with many Social Democrats saying they need to abandon government and return to their roots to stem the hemorrhaging of support in opinion polls. Disagreements, whether on defense or climate, surface daily within the coalition and a poor showing in the East could give the SPD the final push to jump ship.
Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have also suffered massive losses in the former East, where the trained physicist grew up and where the right-wing AfD party now has found fertile territory with an ideology that overlaps that of Pegida.
Martin Modschiedler, a CDU lawmaker seeking re-election to Saxony’s state legislature, says the anti-immigration rage that has greeted Merkel caps a three-decade feeling of displacement since the collapse of East Germany. He drew a parallel with the social convulsions of the late 1960’s in the West and said much of the frustration was aimed at Merkel as steward of the political system.
“There’s a sense of upheaval here, that people say ‘we don’t want to have Mrs. Merkel anymore,’” Modschiedler, 52, said in an office overlooking the Elbe River. “We’re doing fine, we have everything, but people for some reason have fears that it may not stay this way.”
Such grievances have been harnessed by the AfD, which began in 2013 as an anti-euro party but gained new steam with the refugee crisis. In Saxony, the AfD is neck-in-neck with the CDU each with 26 percent support, according to a July 2 Infratest poll. In Brandenburg, the latest Insa poll shows the AfD and the Social Democrats in the lead with 19 percent each, and the Greens, the CDU and anti-capitalist Left party in close pursuit. While the AfD may not find coalition partners to govern with, its strength makes coalition-building difficult and reflects deep seated frustration.
“Voting for the AfD is mostly a matter of protest,” Heidi Schubert, a school teacher said in a Dresden cafe. “When you hear the sort of things they say, there’s a lot of talk about ‘those up there,’” she said in reference to how AfD supporters see a perceived political elite.
While Merkel isn’t conservative enough for many in the East, she’s not progressive enough for many in the West, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. There, the Greens have made massive gains following months of protests by students demanding more government action to curb greenhouse emissions. Nation-wide the SPD and the CDU together have around 40 percent support, a drop of 26 percentage points in six years. Meanwhile, the Greens and AfD more than doubled their backing to 24 percent and 12 percent, respectively, polls show.
Back in Saxony, Merkel did her part in trying to revert the trend by building bridges and confidence. In the town of Goerlitz along the border to Poland she gave workers a pep talk at a Siemens AG turbine plant she lauded as a symbol for recovery and innovation after it risked being closed in 2017.
In Dresden too on July 15, Merkel sought to sow peace and understanding as right-wing radicals protested outside, dishing out advice to the female entrepreneurs on how to deal with change and on the need to compromise.
But mistrust of politicians from traditional parties runs deep in the region. Merkel’s heir-apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who became CDU chief last year and defense minister this week, is already off on the wrong footing, says Modschiedler from her CDU party. “She isn’t really viewed as a good thing.”