As Angela Merkel complained to a packed town hall in rural Swabia about Germans “who forever see the risks and not the opportunities”, her party faithful did not quite know whether to applaud or jeer.
Notionally, the German chancellor had flown in to deepest Baden-Württemberg in order to support the local conservative candidate ahead of Sunday’s regional election.
But half a year after Germany opened its doors to the thousands of refugees stranded at Budapest station, the political landscape in the country has been turned so dramatically upside down that it was hard to tell if she was attacking the Christian Democrats’ political opponents in the region – the Social Democrats and the Greens – or reprimanding her own party.
“Many people around the country are unhappy and may think now is the time to teach the government a lesson,” Merkel said, pointing at the audience. “But this is about you and your choices.”
This week’s “Super Sunday” elections in three German states present 12 million voters with a first chance to cast their verdict on Merkel’s management of the refugee crisis. In Baden-Württemberg, where the chancellor’s CDU still polled at 40% in September, her party faces a catastrophic drubbing: for the first time since the second world war the conservatives look set to lose their status as the biggest party in the region.
A humiliating defeat in its former stronghold, paired with a sceptical domestic reaction to Monday’s migrant deal with Turkey, could galvanise the critics inside Merkel’s party to topple their leader, some commentators speculate.
Anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland, meanwhile, is polling at double digits in all three states – a historic achievement for a party that was only founded three years ago and looked close to collapse when its founder left last July.
“We’ll lose 8-10% of our votes to the AfD”, said Hans-Günther Knaupp, a lawyer and CDU member, at Tuesday night’s rally. “Her course on the refugee crisis is the right one for the world, but it’s the wrong one for her party here in Baden-Württemberg”. If he had the chance, Knaupp said, he would like to ask Merkel why she couldn’t take a step towards her critics on the right.
Over the last seven months, Merkel has repeatedly resisted calls for caps on immigration, insisting on a quota system for distributing refugees that has been widely snubbed by most other EU member states. “It’s a complete catastrophe,” said another party member, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Yet the topsy-turvy logic of the current political situation in Germany is such that a defeat for Merkel’s party could also be interpreted as a sign of support for her leadership. Winfried Kretschmann, the incumbent Green party state premier of Baden-Württemberg who is expected be Sunday’s big winner, has been such a vocal supporter of the chancellor’s open-border stance that conservatives have labelled him her “stalker”.
CDU candidate Guido Wolf, meanwhile, has repeatedly distanced himself from Merkel’s refugee policy, refusing on Tuesday to support her description of the Turkey deal as a “breakthrough”.
Outside the rally in Nürtingen on Tuesday, a group of about 30 Left party and Green party supporters who had gathered to protest against the TTIP trade deal between the EU and the US admitted that they were torn in their feelings towards Germany’s leader.
“She has made so many mistakes in the past,” said Peter Meisel, a pensioner carrying a placard recycled from the height of the Greek debt crisis, “but last summer she was right. Merkel is the only woman who understood that the right for asylum is a fundamental right.”
Far from being certain to unseat the German chancellor, Sunday’s election could easily end up tightening her grip on power. There are likely to be big losses for the Social Democrats in Saxony-Anhalt – and stunning gains for the AfD of up to 19% – but Merkel’s party looks certain to remain the biggest in the eastern German state.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the incumbent Social Democrat state premier is head-to-head in the polls with CDU candidate Julia Klöckner, who has been touted as a potential successor to Merkel in the event of a party coup. A narrow win would register as a gain for Merkel’s party, while a narrow loss would clip the potential rebel leader’s wings.
While Merkel’s course during the refugee crisis has lost her many traditional supporters on the right, it has also gained her new admirers in the centre and on the left. “Merkel is growing out of being a workaday politician,” eulogised Heribert Prantl in centre-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. “She comes across as statesmanlike; she is becoming Germany’s first stateswoman.”
In a Forsa poll published on Wednesday, the chancellor’s approval ratings have soared to 50%, their highest this year..
Not everyone agrees that the chancellor has deserted her pragmatism of old. “The secret to Merkel’s success is still that she is incredibly flexible,” said Hajo Schumacher, a journalist who a decade ago wrote his PhD on her party management. “She is able to operate on a wide scale of political methodologies, from brutal and principled revenge to chequebook diplomacy, as we are seeing it in her treatment of Turkey at the moment, or in her dealings with David Cameron last month – it’s unimaginable that she would have made concessions like that to someone in her own party.”
With her latest management of the refugee crisis, the German chancellor had already performed a U-turn on her open-borders stance from last summer, Schumacher said. “She is a master of timing, especially in times of crisis. She tends to turn when the polls turn, but not a minute before.”
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