Merkel pitches German voters steady course while far right makes waves

The far-right, anti-EU Alternative for Germany party is expected to win as much as 12 per cent of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections, potentially making it the third largest party in the Bundestag.

Chancellor's message is simple: Stick with me and all will be well

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for an election rally in Wismar on Tuesday. (Axel Schmidt/Reuters)

Inside, a choir of elderly men in sailor caps sings a rousing, German-accented version of Yellow Submarine while a crowd of mainly 40-somethings taps along seated in rows of chairs in a big meeting hall in the town of Wismar along the Baltic coast. 

Outside, seagulls windsurf above a row of fishmongers selling their goods from boats next to the dock. A life-size statue of a pirate peers out to sea from the crow's nest of one of the boats, as if looking for the expected visitor on the horizon. 

It is not, perhaps, the welcome you might expect for the woman often described as the most powerful politician in Europe and sometimes as the new leader of the free world.

But it is in keeping with Angela Merkel's image and anything more ostentatious would be out of place.

Germans go to the polls in a parliamentary election on Sunday, Sept. 24, and we've got you covered with this primer 2:06

When she does arrive, by land not sea, she walks calmly past a dozen or so hecklers before taking to the stage inside the hall for a good 40 minutes.

Her message is simple: Things are good in Germany right now, but let's not get complacent. Stick with me and all will be well.

'She omits emotions'

It's not, with all due respect to the Yellow Submariners, the most exciting of campaign events. But that is precisely what Angela Merkel is selling. No surprises. No bumps. No tweets.

"She omits emotions," says Timo Lochocki, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund based in Berlin. "Which is extremely appreciated by most Germans. By most Germans."

That wasn't always the temperament of Merkel's Christian Democrats, Lochocki says. Now it's the far right and the liberals who appeal to people's emotions. 

And — at least on the right — they've created some unexpected waves for Merkel and potentially for some of her international partners, too.

A local men's choir performs at a rally for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in Wismar. Germans head to the polls Sunday. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The far-right, anti-EU Alternative for Germany party is expected to win as much as 12 per cent of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections, potentially making it the third largest party in the Bundestag.

That's not enough to jeopardize Merkel's hopes for a fourth term as chancellor. But it is enough to offer the AfD a much bigger — and more mainstream — platform than a far-right party has had in Germany since the end of the Nazi era.

The AfD could even form the official opposition if, as expected, Merkel must form a coalition government after the vote.

If the polls prove accurate, it would be a substantial shift in German politics and pave the way for a much more fractious and fractured parliament.

Protesters outside the rally blow whistles and hold signs that read, 'Merkel Must Go.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

Many Germans are already deeply uneasy with the AfD's willingness and ability to lower the bar of debate, campaigning on an openly xenophobic platform and raising previously taboo subjects like whether Germany should have to keep atoning for its past.

"That's the past of my father and my grandfather, but it's not my past," an AfD supporter said earlier this week at a small protest outside Merkel's office in Berlin.

"I look in the future. And I don't want a country that's run over by the Islam."

A poster from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) reads, 'New Germans? We make them ourselves.' (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

The AfD was first formed in 2013, as a party of academics stridently opposed to European integration.

A potential new platform in the German parliament for a party devoted to breaking up the European Union could throw some cold water on Merkel's budding political romance with France's recently minted president, Emmanuel Macron.

Both Merkel and Macron have pledged to re-invigorate the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU.

'This fabulous return'

Josef Janning, a Berlin-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the importance of Germany's role in the EU to Merkel's own success is not to be underestimated. 

"We don't normally realize how much of our current success, how much of this fabulous return of this country to the league of civilized nations, to sort of a lead position in that group, is due to the fact that we are a very central part of a European community that we would like to see grow and get stronger."

Supporters of the AfD protest outside Merkel's office in Berlin. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Germany is also expected to be a key player as complex exit negotiations between the U.K. and the 27 other EU members get going in earnest.

Not surprisingly, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the British Brexit campaign and thorn in the side of Euro-enthusiasts everywhere, has thrown his support behind the AfD.

Not that Germans will necessarily be considering anything he has to say when they cast their ballots on Sunday. Just more of a note that the country might not be exempt from the same kind of polarized politics some of its EU partners face.

Rise of the far right

The AfD now has members in 13 of Germany's 16 state legislative assemblies.

Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund says the AfD's rise is partly the result of the failure of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Social Democrat coalition partners to differentiate themselves from each other in any meaningful way.

"The two big parties still currently resemble 60 to 70 per cent of the German electorate, so their agenda-setting power is way bigger than the AfD," he says. "So the key is not the AfD, the key is what do the other parties do after they join the parliament."

Will they be tempted, for example, to shift to the right in order to gain back any lost ground? Will Merkel be able to maintain the calm waters if something really has fundamentally shifted in German politics?

That's something Merkel's allies on the world stage will be watching for. They have a vested interest in Merkel's ability to maintain her cool-hand approach to geopolitics.

Merkel, for instance, is a key player in EU efforts to avoid further confrontation between Ukraine and Russia.

Potential adversaries will be watching, too, looking for any dent in that calm demeanour.

Tense times

Back on stage in Wismar on Tuesday, Merkel wasn't showing any signs of faint-heartedness. Reeling off a list of key countries with which Germany must maintain good relations, she made a point of including Turkey, even though its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called on Turks in Germany to vote against mainstream politicians including Merkel.

But there's no doubt many German voters, decided or undecided about Merkel, still see her as a safe pair of hands. 

Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have pledged to re-invigorate the Franco-German axis at the heart of the European Union. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

"For the Germans, for the next four years, I think it's very important to make the way with her," says Ute Marx, who before hearing Merkel's speech had wavered between casting her vote for Merkel or the Social Democrats.

Marx says she's worried about the world both inside and outside of Germany, mentioning both the rise of the AfD and general fears about possible wars.

On their way out after the rally, some in the men's choir say almost exactly the same thing, mentioning worries about North Korea, in particular.

"Sky of blue and sea of green" momentarily forgotten. 

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.