She is one of the most powerful women in the world, and from the outside looking in it might appear that she is at the peak of her powers after 10 years as the leader of Europe’s biggest and steadily growing economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown open the gates to a million refugees this year, led Europe’s efforts to save Greece from financial ruin and brokered a cease-fire in Ukraine.
But seen from the inside, the chancellor’s political power has been seriously eroded. Her popularity has been in free fall over the last three months amid xenophobic fears that refugees are overrunning the country and the government is losing control of its borders. Merkel faces a showdown with her own ruling conservative party this weekend when the Christian Democrats meet at their annual party congress.
The 1,000 delegates from across Germany will meet Sunday in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe for three days of speeches and debates about the course of the party, which has ruled Germany for 26 of the last 33 years.
It is normally a civilized gathering with lots of speeches and a few controlled debates, after which Merkel has been reelected unchallenged as party leader every other year with up to 98% of the vote. There will be no vote this year, but plenty of testy debate is expected to surround the woman who was just named Time magazine’s person of the year for her European leadership in the debt and refugee crises.
Many of the Christian Democratic delegates — for the most part elected officials and officeholders from the Baltic Sea to the Black Forest — are upset about Merkel’s open-door policies on Syrian refugees because they fear many conservative voters will abandon the party, turn for a new far-right party or simply stay at home in three important regional elections early next year. Conservative members of Parliament have been airing their criticism of Merkel with a vigor not seen since she took power in 2005.
Merkel, who is finding herself increasingly isolated in Europe as a whole over her refugee policies, faced an astonishing rebellion from within her Cabinet recently when two normally loyal Christian Democratic allies, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, thwarted her plans to allow refugees who arrived in Germany to bring their families in later. That could have tripled the numbers of refugees.
“Merkel’s going to face a lot of criticism at the party congress from people in the CDU with a lot of pent-up anger over the refugee situation, and there will be people looking to kick her in the shins,” said Richard Stoess, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “But at the end of the day, they all know that the party doesn’t have any alternative candidate to Merkel. There’s no one waiting in the wings.”
Since Merkel, 61, beat back a long line of once-powerful male rivals in the Christian Democratic Union earlier in her career after taking the party leadership in 2000, no one has dared to challenge her. She has led the Christian Democrats to three consecutive federal election victories since 2005. Though her plunging popularity has pushed the party down in opinion polls to about 38% from close to 42% earlier this year, the conservatives are still far ahead of their largest rival, the center-left Social Democrats, who are stuck at 25%.
A big concern for the Christian Democrats is the fast-growing far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has shot up to levels above 10% — mostly siphoning away voters from the Christian Democratic Union who are fed up with Merkel’s welcoming of refugees with her now-famous slogan: “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it). The conservatives are also in a pensive mood ahead of the three important state elections on March 16 — in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt — where the flood of refugees is the No. 1 issue.
“Merkel will have a big problem on her hands if CDU gets clobbered in March,” Stoess said of the Christian Democrats. “If she hasn’t got the refugee crisis under control by then and the CDU is weak, it’s going to be a different and far more difficult situation for her.”
Hans Vorlaender, a political scientist at the Technical University in Dresden, said the Christian Democratic Union tends to stick with its leaders more faithfully and through tough times more than any other party in Germany — as long as they’re winning state and federal elections. But party support can evaporate quickly if lots of delegates and party rank and file start losing their posts following lost elections. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, lost the support of his Social Democratic Party after it lost control of most of Germany’s 16 states, costing thousands of party jobs before he lost his as well.
“The delegates are going to criticize her refugee policies but will try to do that without damaging Merkel,” Vorlaender said. “They know that she’s the only one who can win elections for them and will be hoping she’ll find a way to get the voters to rally around the CDU again by the next vote. They don’t have any interest in causing her lasting damage.”
Merkel refuses to bow to pressure from the right wing of her party to introduce an upper limit on the number of refugees, saying the country’s constitution has no such provisions.
Merkel has made small concessions to the conservatives by pushing for a European Union-wide response to the refugee crisis, blocking some refugee family reunifications and introducing some border controls.
That is not enough for many in her party. Armin Schuster is a member of Parliament for the Christian Democrats who was a federal police officer and border guard patrolling Germany’s frontiers for 29 years before switching to politics in 2009.
“It’s not acceptable that people are coming uncontrolled across Germany’s borders,” Schuster said. “A country has to be able to keep control of its borders. Politically, we’ve given that up far too easily. That’s not anyone’s idea of national security.”
Schuster said police estimate there could be as many as 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented and unregistered refugees in Germany now, far more than a year ago.
“It’s not all right that refugees are being housed in gymnasiums, in tent villages and in containers,” he said. “This can’t go on like this any longer.”
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.\