It was remarkable: After the bloody lorry attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, it was Chancellor Angela Merkel herself who made a connection between the terror attack and refugees. She said on Tuesday that it would be “particularly difficult for us to bear it if it turns out that this act was committed by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany”. She added that those responsible would have to face the full consequences of the law.
“It was not only an effort to regain control and demonstrate leadership, but moreover, to take the wind out of the right wing’s sails amidst fears and the hunt for the assassin involved in Monday’s attacks on the Breitscheidplatz market, for which ISIS has declared its responsibility now.” The first suspect, a 23-year-old Pakistani, has been released. Investigations now concentrate on a Tunisian Islamist, an asylum seeker called Anis A.
The longer it takes to identify the perpetrator, the worse for Merkel. Her popularity has plummeted dramatically since the time in 2015 when one million immigrants, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, came to seek refuge in Germany. The terror attack in Berlin has the potential to seriously threaten Merkel’s options for a fourth term in power. Even though the surveys for her conservative Christian Democratic Party remain stable, and no competitor in her own ranks has yet sought to challenge her, a rising right-wing force threatens her power.
For the anti-asylum Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has already got seats in 10 of the 16 states’ parliaments, the Berlin terror attack is an unexpected present — and it has not hesitated to unwrap it in public. “These are Merkel’s dead”, said party functionary Marcus Pretzell. The ultra right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany even declared that Merkel had “blood on her hands”.
This is nonsense as there were many factors for the influx of refugees in 2015; it would have needed force to stop them from entering. But in these heated discussions, facts count little — and the populists from the street movement Pegida and elsewhere applaud. Emboldened by right-wing surges in Europe and the US, the rhetoric of the German right becomes increasingly hostile and fundamentalist.
On Wednesday night, AfD leaders called for a rally in front of the Chancellor’s office. “It is enough”, said Björn Höcke, an AfD state leader who had previously described the sexual behaviour of Africans as “expansion type”. Another participant is the radical right-wing publisher Götz Kubitschek, whose pamphlets agitate against migrants and refugees. Polls show that the AfD has indeed good chances to enter the Bundestag parliament in 2017. In that case, electoral algebra will make it extremely difficult for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party to build a coalition. Her current partner, the Social Democratic Party, is unwilling to enter another coalition with the conservatives.
Merkel’s strategy has been a sharp right turn in her own politics and rhetoric, from negotiating an anti-refugee pact with Turkey, passing stricter asylum laws, calling for a public ban on the burka, forcing the expulsion of rejected refugees. One week ago, the first airplane in months to return failed asylum seekers carried 50 Afghans with alleged crime records back to Kabul. There has been little resistance from a population that this year faced its first Islamist terror series with events in Hannover, Würzburg, Ansbach and now, Berlin.
Merkel’s reaction to this terror has been in line with her anti-asylum initiatives: She gave priority to security agencies and equipped the foreign secret service with NSA-like surveillance powers, excavating basic constitutional rights. Yet, she has not gone as far as France’s President Hollande, who has maintained the state of emergency for over a year now.
The recent attack of Berlin is not only a strain for Germany’s tolerance. It will be a test for Europe’s democratic powerhouse itself.