Germany's Angela Merkel may have won fight over migration, but her coalition is in doubt

Monday , July 02, 2018 - 8:25 AM

James McAuley and Luisa Beck

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

BERLIN - The fate of Germany’s ruling coalition settled into a tense standoff Monday as both sides awaited a final decision in the dramatic threat by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner to walk out and bring down the government over its immigration policy.

Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s hard line interior minister first threatened to depose her then he said he would resign himself, in an effort to make himself look tough on immigration - part of an election strategy for his Christian Social Union’s constituency in wealthy Bavaria.

Analysts are now comparing the standoff to a Broadway musical: light on the substance, heavy on the drama but with more than enough late-night intrigue to please any crowd.

Berlin is now awaiting the grand finale, whether Seehofer and Merkel will reach a compromise, or whether the renegade interior minister will jeopardize the coalition that has reliably supported Merkel’s long reign over her decision to welcome nearly a million migrants in 2015.

Yet while the conventional wisdom lately has been that Merkel’s days are numbered, brought down by the migration issue that has polarized so much of Europe, she may yet emerge from these partisan squabbles as the only constant in a cast of characters who often change their colors as they see fit.

If Seehofer does ultimately step down, Merkel’s position would only be strengthened, said Nils Diederich, a political-science professor at the Free University Berlin. “She will prove to be a stable lighthouse in a tumultuous sea,” he said, if she stays on course and continues to defend her views on migration all throughout the latest political crisis triggered by her nominal allies.

He noted that the CSU’s motivation in precipitating the crisis likely stem from their regional elections set for October in Bavaria, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been gaining ground.

“What’s happening now has nothing to do with content,” Diederich said. “It’s solely aimed at the upcoming Bavarian state elections.”

That strategy hasn’t been successful, according to recent polls in Bavaria, which show a 1.9 percent drop in support for the CDU/CSU coalition, compared with a 2.4 percent rise for the AfD.

By Monday morning, there were already signs that some CSU officials regretted the extent to which their colleagues had jeopardized national cohesion for a reelection strategy that does not seem to be paying off.

Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier - as well as Seehofer’s rival in the party - told reporters Monday that he was “very surprised” about Seehofer’s offer to step down from his ministerial position. Söder suggested that the party would be better served finding a compromise rather than breaking the coalition.

An exit from government would mean a loss of influence in Berlin, he noted. “One thing is very clear: the stability of the government is not a question for us,” he told German news wires on Monday. “One can reach a lot within a government, but not outside of it.”

The real victor of the latest standoff, however, could well be the far-right anti-immigrant AfD. Its leaders are actively framing the fight between Seehofer and Merkel as a confirmation of their long-repeated criticisms about a self-serving, opportunistic political establishment. The party’s harsh anti-migrant stances, once banished to the fringes of public discourse, have now entered the conservative mainstream.

“It’s a process of self-delegitimization that’s going on among the establishment,” said Michael Koß, a political scientist at the University of Munich, referring to the spat inside the coalition. “The AfD always claimed from the outside that the establishment politicians were only out for their own good, and currently I have to say I agree.”

For its part, the AfD wasted no time in attacking the Broadway dimensions of Seehofer’s antics on Monday morning.

“Horst Seehofer and the CSU have been staging a miserable and slimy theater,” wrote Alice Weidel, the AfD’s leader, in a statement published on Facebook. “The back and forth and the resignation from the resignation of the interior minister were merely staged.”

She then reiterated the party’s anti-migrant stance that has so far worked so well for it. “The AfD is the only power that can bring this asylum chaos under control.”

In fact, the number of asylum seekers in Germany has fallen dramatically to pre-2015 levels, thanks in part to Merkel’s more restrictive policies in recent years.

Whether the AfD will continue to be able to capitalize on the coalition’s crisis remains to be seen, but what seems most certain is that in trying to gain back voters from the AfD and challenge Merkel, Seehofer miscalculated his hand.

In the past, Merkel, who has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005, often thwarted her opponents by assuming their positions, but on migration she cannot do that to the same extent. Although some on the political left have criticized her for making too many concessions on the issue, Merkel has also patently refused to call the 2015 influx of migrants a mistake or to adopt the same anti-migrant rhetoric of her more hard line allies.

“She’s in the final phase of her political career. She aims to be remembered as a great European, or the honorable grandchild of Helmut Kohl,” said Werner Weidenfeld, a German political scientist.

“That’s why this political debate has a different dimension,” he said.

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