Berlin attack is a blow to Angela Merkel, but will it undo her bold gamble to squeeze the Left?

Whether the attacker thought of it in that light or not, the horrific truck-mowing-people strike at a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday night was also a broadside against German chancellor Angela Merkel. She is preparing to lead her party’s bid for a fourth successive term in power in the National Elections slated for next year.

It's easy to say that this apparent terror attack will harm her, but I would not count on it yet. The big question actually is: How will Germany’s political spectrum play out? Will Merkel capture enough space to her party’s left to offset the gains of xenophobes to her right?

 Berlin attack is a blow to Angela Merkel, but will it undo her bold gamble to squeeze the Left?

A German police officer stands on guard at a Christmas market in Germany one day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin. AP

On the face of it, Merkel is about as uncharismatic a national leader one could ask for. She is phlegmatic and matronly. Few would associate her even remotely with pizzaz. Indeed, many Germans struggle to identify reasons for her continuing successes. But for the most part, they have trusted her like one would a mother — comfortable in the belief that she will take care of things. The fact is that Merkel is a shrewd, down-to-earth politician with an unerring sense for making the right move. Her gutsy decision to throw open her country’s doors to refugees last year was far more popular within Germany than it was in the rest of Europe.

By and large, people in Denmark, Holland, France and of course Britain were aghast when some media reported that two million refugees were flooding into Europe. More than half of them got refuge in Germany. Remember Brexit a few months ago? In part, that was what feckless British politicians managed by manipulating the fears Merkel’s open-door policy had generated on their island.

In Germany on the other hand, there was a general willingness to go along with Merkel’s 'We can do this' ("Wir schaffen das”) message (except in large parts of the former East Germany, and some other pockets). Among many Germans, there was almost the excitement of a youth group to climb a mountain. There have been repeated blows to that enthusiasm. The most noted so far was the molestation of several women during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne almost a year ago. And there have been several others, including outright terrorism. The early enthusiasm has frayed as a result, but it hasn’t gone altogether.

Weakened Left

I mentioned Germany’s political spectrum at the beginning. Here’s why:

The political brilliance of Merkel’s move to welcome refugees unreservedly was that it pulled the rug from under all the major formations to the left of her party. She has left some of them in a shambles.  Indeed, Die Linke, Germany’s Communist party, was at war with its leader on Tuesday over her statement that Merkel was responsible. The recent attacks had shown that "the reception and integration of a large number of refugees and immigrants is bound up with significant problems and is more difficult than Merkel's 'we'll manage it' last fall tried to persuade us," Die Linke leader Sahra Wagenknecht had stated.

The Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) Andre Poggenburg exultantly tweeted in response: `That’s right! The failed German refugee policy is to blame. Ms Wagenknecht, Left, come to the AfD.” That was too much for Left stalwarts. Several of her party leaders got a signature campaign going against Wagenknecht, calling her statement a 'slap in the face for us all'.

While thus weakening the country’s socialist, Left and Green parties, Merkel must surely have calculated that her feel-good move to welcome refugees — when horrific pictures of them were circulating, wrenching hearts across a country that still lives under a cloud of guilt over the holocaust — would strengthen the AfD, the xenophobic party that is decidedly more conservative than her Christian Democratic Union.

Her gamble was that, however much AfD gained, it would not get a majority. (It is now estimated to have about 15 percent of the popular vote across Germany.) And of course she calculated that AfD could not ally, or form a coalition with, any of the three parties to the left of her CDU.

File image of Angela Merkel. AP

File image of Angela Merkel. AP

Big test next year

Of course, she made that gamble before Donald Trump won the US elections, and before Britain exited the European Union.

Next year’s elections in Germany will tell us just how much a xenophobic, racist party can gain without a widespread sense of economic insecurity in the country. AfD will certainly do exceptionally well in pockets of Germany where jobs are scarce, unemployment is high and economic activity is in the doldrums. Indeed, AfD has already done very well in local elections in such pockets, including one on Germany’s eastern border with Poland.

But economic slowdown is not the overall story of Germany. Confidence in longterm economic strength is fraying to some extent, but probably not enough in the majority of German states for fear to give way to xenophobia among a majority. Merkel’s gamble was calculated to establish her party in the Centre and to spread her party’s influence to the left of the political spectrum. The big question is: Did she misread how quickly the tide of history was bringing the xenophobic Right to the Centre?

Updated Date: Dec 21, 2016 08:16:44 IST