Newspaper article International New York Times

Angela Merkel, Down but Not Out

Newspaper article International New York Times

Angela Merkel, Down but Not Out

Article excerpt

Germany's far right is on the rise. But the chancellor still has a chance to pull her country back to the center.

On Sunday, roughly nine million Germans cast their votes in three state elections. On the surface, the far right did well: The populist Alternative for Germany Party, the most outspoken opponent of Chancellor Angela Merkel's course in the refugee and migration crisis, made significant gains in all three states. In Saxony- Anhalt, in the East, the party came in second, just 5 percentage points behind Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats and 14 points ahead of her coalition partner, the Social Democrats. Even in the West, traditionally more immune to all things that reek of radicalism, the party came in third.

Still, this is no clear victory, nor a clear defeat for Ms. Merkel's policy in the migration crisis: Ms. Merkel's allies did well in the two Western states, Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland Palatinate. It is, however, a clear victory for anger. And that is an important lesson for German policy makers.

Election-day exit polls showed an increasing fragmentation of the electorate, with a brittle center, strongly polarized opinions and new voices entering the conversation. This is not the sort of politics we're used to. As one poll showed, the A.f.D., as it's called, gathered a good chunk of its votes from first-time or infrequent voters. In all three federal states, participation in the elections rose. About two-thirds of those who voted for the far- right populists said they were angry with the established parties.

And yet as many have stressed, the success of the A.f.D., and its accompanying polarization, do not necessarily indicate an epochal drift of German society toward the far right. The results express a state of fear and exasperation in German society: It is an emotional reaction, rather than one grounded in political reasoning.

So far, the establishment's answer to the A.f.D. and other anti- immigration movements has been twofold. First: stigmatization, for example by comparing the A.f.D. to the National Democrats, a party even further to the right. Second: reason. "We have to meet those who use migration to spread their mean propaganda by dismantling it with arguments," wrote the minister of justice, Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, in a tweet shortly after the election results were announced. That's an honorable and enlightened policy approach. But neither strategy offers the right counter to fear and anger.

The established parties have neglected the emotional side of politics in the past years. And why not? Until mid-2015, German politics seemed to be a technocracy, a perpetual-motion machine that needed careful maintenance, rather than a conductor. Ms. Merkel, the coolheaded manager, was perfect for the job. Her caution preserved the country's economic stability through the financial crisis. …

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