Germany's Right-Wing Challenge

How Merkel Should Respond

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, December 2015. Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

In recent years, Germany has emerged as Europe’s preeminent power not only because of the strength of its economy but also because of the extraordinary stability of its political system. Chancellor Angela Merkel is the embodiment of this stability: for most of the past decade, she has been able to govern as a centrist, unconstrained by the right-wing populist groups that have become a major force in all of Germany’s neighbors. This domestic calm allowed Merkel to focus on managing Europe’s various crises—from the negotiations over Greece’s debt to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

All of that is now changing fast, thanks mostly to the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is capitalizing on widespread discontent with Merkel’s refugee policy. Represented in ten of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments and polling at up to 15 percent nationally, the AfD is on track to enter the German Bundestag for the first time after the autumn 2017 elections.

The AfD has drawn voters from all of Germany’s major parties, but it is Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that has suffered the most damage. This month, the right-wing upstarts replaced the CDU as the second-largest party in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. That victory must have been especially sweet for the AfD leadership, which regards Merkel as a dictatorial figure who has sold out the German people to foreign interests. Indeed, removing the chancellor from office is a prime goal of the far right’s broader project to turn Germany into an illiberal, nationalist, anti-Islam, and anti-EU country. 

Within Merkel's increasingly nervous party, there has been a bitter disagreement over how to stop the AfD’s rise. The chancellor's critics have demanded that the CDU take a dramatic shift to the right to capture the AfD’s supporters. But Merkel has taken the opposite course, doubling down on the CDU’s centrism. That is the right move, but it will keep her coalition

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